Targeted Therapy for Liver Cancer

As researchers learn more about the changes in cells that cause cancer, they have been able to develop newer drugs that specifically target these changes. Targeted drugs work differently from standard chemotherapy drugs (which are described in Chemotherapy for Liver Cancer) and often have different side effects.

Like chemotherapy, these drugs enter the bloodstream and reach almost all areas of the body, which makes them potentially useful against cancers that have spread to distant parts of the body. Because standard chemo has not been effective in most patients with liver cancer, doctors have been looking at targeted therapies more.

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors

Kinases are proteins on or near the surface of a cell that carry important signals to the cell’s control center. The targeted drugs used to treat liver cancer (called tyrosine kinase inhibitors, or TKIs) block several kinase proteins that help tumor cells grow or help tumors form new blood vessels to feed itself. Blocking these proteins can help stop the growth of cancer cells.

Common side effects of these drugs can include fatigue, loss of appetite, hand-foot syndrome (redness and irritation of the hands and feet), high blood pressure, weight loss, diarrhea, and abdominal (belly) pain.

Less common but more serious side effects can include problems with blood flow to the heart, bleeding, abnormal thyroid tests, and perforations (holes) in the stomach or intestines.

Sorafenib (Nexavar) and lenvatinib (Lenvima)

These drugs can be used to treat liver cancer if it cannot be treated by surgery or if it has spread to other organs.

Sorafenib is a pill taken twice daily. Lenvatinib is a pill that is taken once a day. 

Sorafenib may work better in people with liver cancer caused by hepatitis C.

Regorafenib (Stivarga) and cabozantinib (Cabometyx)

These drugs can be used to treat liver cancer if sorafenib is no longer helpful.

Regorafenib is a pill, typically taken once a day for 3 weeks, followed by a week off. Cabozantinib is a pill taken once a day.

Ramucirumab (Cyramza)

Ramucirumab is used to treat advanced liver cancer if sorafenib stops working. It works mainly by keeping the cancer from making more blood vessels.

This drug is given as an infusion into a vein (IV) every 2 weeks.

More information about targeted therapy

To learn more about how targeted drugs are used to treat cancer, see Targeted Cancer Therapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: April 1, 2019 Last Revised: May 16, 2019

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