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Targeted therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs designed to "target" cancer cells without affecting normal cells.
Cancer cells typically have changes in their genes that make them different from normal cells. Genes are part of a cell's DNA that tell the cell to do certain things. When a cell has certain gene changes, it doesn't behave like a normal cell. For example, gene changes in cancer cells might allow the cell to grow and divide very quickly. These types of changes are what make it a cancer cell.
But there are many different types of cancer, and not all cancer cells are the same. For example, colon cancer and breast cancer cells have different gene changes that help them grow and/or spread. Even among different people with the same general type of cancer (such as colon cancer), the cancer cells can have different gene changes, making one person's specific type of colon cancer different from another person's.
Researchers have also learned that the environment in which different cancers start, grow, and thrive are not always the same. For example, some cancers have certain types of proteins or enzymes send certain messages to tell the cancer cell to grow and copy itself.
Knowing these details has led to the development of drugs that can “target” these proteins or enzymes and block the messages being sent. Targeted drugs can block or turn off signals that make cancer cells grow, or can signal the cancer cells to destroy themselves.
Targeted therapy is an important type of cancer treatment, and researchers will develop more targeted drugs as they learn more about specific changes in cancer cells. But so far, only a few type of cancers are routinely treated using only these drugs. Most people getting targeted therapy also need surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or hormone therapy.
Targeted therapy drugs, like other drugs used to treat cancer, are technically considered chemotherapy. But targeted therapy drugs don’t work the same way as traditional or standard chemotherapy (chemo) drugs. Targeted drugs zero in on some of the changes that make cancer cells different from normal cells. This makes them work differently from chemotherapy in two key ways:
Targeted therapies are made to find and attack specific areas or substances in cancer cells, or can detect and block certain kinds of messages sent inside a cancer cell that tell it to grow. Some of the substances in cancer cells that become the "targets" of targeted therapies are:
The action of targeted drugs can work to:
The action of the drugs can affect where these drugs work and what side effects they cause.
It's important to note that some targeted therapy drugs, for example, monoclonal antibodies, work in more than one way to control cancer cells and may also be considered immunotherapy because they boost the immune system.
Targeted therapy is sometimes called precision medicine or personalized medicine. This is because they are made to exactly target specific changes or substances in cancer cells, and these targets can be different even when people have the same type of cancer. Certain types of tumors are tested for different targets after a biopsy or surgery, and this can help find the most effective treatment. Finding a specific target makes matching patients with treatment more precise or personalized.
Some targeted drugs are more “targeted” than others. Targeted therapies are classified as either small or large molecule drugs.
Many kinds of cancer can be treated with targeted therapies, and there are many different types of targeted therapies. Here are some types with a few examples of how they are used.
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 Revised: January 29, 2021
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