As researchers have learned more about the changes in the inner workings of cells that cause cancer or help cancer cells grow, they have developed newer drugs that target these changes. These targeted drugs work differently from standard chemotherapy drugs. They sometimes work when chemo drugs don’t, and they often have different side effects.
Targeted drugs do not yet play a large role in treating brain or spinal cord tumors, but some of them might be helpful for certain types of tumors.
Dabrafenib (Tafinlar) and trametinib (Mekinist)
In some low-grade gliomas, the tumor cells have a change in the BRAF gene known as a V600E mutation, which causes them to make certain proteins that help the cells grow.
Dabrafenib and trametinib are targeted drugs that affect some of these proteins. (Dabrafenib targets the BRAF protein, while trametinib affects the related MEK protein.) Combining these drugs might be an option for children at least one year of age with any type of low-grade glioma with a BRAF V600E mutation that needs treatment other than surgery or radiation. If your child has a low-grade glioma, the tumor cells might be tested for this gene change.
These drugs are typically taken daily, either as pills or as liquids.
Common side effects can include skin changes, rash, itching, sensitivity to the sun, headache, fever, chills, joint or muscle pain, fatigue, cough, hair loss, nausea, diarrhea, and high blood pressure.
Less common but serious side effects can include bleeding, heart rhythm problems, liver or kidney problems, lung problems, severe allergic reactions, severe skin or eye problems, and increased blood sugar levels.
Some people treated with these drugs have developed skin cancers, especially squamous cell skin cancers. Your child’s doctor will want to check their skin often during treatment. You should also let the doctor know right away if you notice any new growths or abnormal areas on your child’s skin.
For subependymal giant cell astrocytomas (SEGAs) that can’t be removed completely by surgery, everolimus may shrink the tumor or slow its growth for some time. This drug works by blocking a cell protein known as mTOR, which normally helps cells grow and divide into new cells.
Everolimus is a pill taken once a day.
Common side effects include mouth sores, increased risk of infections, nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, skin rash, feeling tired or weak, fluid buildup (usually in the legs), and increases in blood sugar and cholesterol levels. A less common but serious side effect is lung damage, which can cause shortness of breath or other problems.
Many other targeted drugs are now being developed and studied in clinical trials. Some of these are described in What’s New in Research and Treatment for Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children?