Anticancer drug, also called antineoplastic drug refers to any drug that is effective in the treatment of malignant, or cancerous disease. There are several major classes of anticancer drugs; these include alkylating agents, antimetabolites, natural products, and hormones.
In addition, there are a number of drugs that do not fall within those classes but that demonstrate anticancer activity and thus are used in the treatment of malignant disease. The term chemotherapy frequently is equated with the use of anticancer drugs, although it more accurately refers to the use of chemical compounds to treat disease generally.
With advances in anticancer drug discovery and development in the last several decades, more than 100’s anticancer drugs have been discovered and approved by the FDA. These drugs can be broadly classified into three simple groups namely:
Cytotoxic drugs. Sometimes known as antineoplastics describes a group of medicines that contain chemicals which are toxic to cells, preventing their replication or growth, and so are used to treat cancer. They can also be used to treat a number of other disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis
Hormones. Some cancers depend on hormones to grow. Because of this, treatments that block or alter hormones can sometimes help slow or stop the growth of these cancers. Treating cancer with hormones is called hormone therapy, hormonal therapy, or endocrine therapy. Hormone therapy is mostly used to treat certain kinds of breast cancer and prostate cancer that depend on sex hormones to grow. A few other cancers can be treated with hormone therapy, too.
Hormone therapy is considered a systemic treatment because the hormones they target circulate in the body. The drugs used in hormone therapy travel throughout the body to target and find the hormones. This makes it different from treatments that affect only a certain part of body, like most types of surgery and radiation therapy. Treatments like these are called local treatments because they affect one part of the body.
Signal transduction inhibitors. Signal transduction inhibitors are drugs that may prevent the ability of cancer cells to multiply quickly and invade other tissues. Signal transduction inhibitors stop the activities of the molecules that assist in signal transduction, a process that ensures that once a cell has received a specific signal, the signal is reset within the cell.
Signal transduction inhibitors (STIs) like Imatinib, Erlotinib And Gefitinib bind to the ATP-binding site of tyrosine kinases (NOT the substrate binding site). STIs generally have fewer side effects than conventional therapies because they are targeted toward the specific defect of a particular cancer.
Cancer Drug Discoveries
The discovery of new cancer drugs can happen in different ways:
Accidental discovery. In the early 1940s, an explosion exposed sailors to poisonous mustard gas. Doctors found that these sailors had low white blood cell counts. So they began using nitrogen mustard, or mechlorethamine (Mustargen) to treat Hodgkin lymphoma. This is a cancer of the lymphatic system involving the white blood cells. Nitrogen mustard is still a cancer treatment used today. But accidental discoveries such as this are rare.
Testing plants, fungi, and animals. Paclitaxel (Taxol) treats several types of cancer. This was first found in the bark of the Pacific yew tree. More recently, a primitive animal called a sea sponge was used to create the drug eribulin (Halaven). The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has samples of thousands of plants, marine organisms, bacteria, and fungi. These are collected from around the world in the hopes of finding new cancer treatments.
Studying the biology of cancer cells. Most cancer researchers start by comparing both the genes found in DNA and growth patterns of cancer cells to healthy cells. This identifies important steps in the cancer growth process that a drug could fix.
For example, researchers learned that about 20% of all breast cancers have an abnormal amount of a certain protein. It is called HER2 and controls the growth and spread of cancer cells. Five drugs were created to target HER2: trastuzumab (Herceptin), lapatinib (Tykerb), pertuzumab (Perjeta), ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla), and neratinib (Nerlynx). Now, a person with breast cancer has the tumor tested to check for HER2. It will show if these drugs can treat the cancer.
Side effects of cancer drugs
The side effects you might have vary from person to person. It also depends on the cancer drugs you are having. Different drugs have different side effects. Not all cancer drugs cause hair loss or sickness for example. And the side effects of each drug vary for different people.
You might get only very mild side effects or you might get one or a few side effects of a particular drug. It is not possible to say beforehand:
- whether you will have a particular side effect
- when the effect will start or stop
- how bad it will be for you
Side effects depend on many factors including:
- which drugs you are having
- how long you have been taking the drug
- your general health
- the dose (amount of drug)
- the way you have the drug (for example, as a tablet or injection)
- other drugs or cancer treatments that you are having
Ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist to write down the names of your drugs so that you can look each one up.
Many side effects are inconvenient or upsetting but are not harmful to your health. But some side effects are serious medical conditions. You might need treatment for them. Discuss your side effects with your doctor, nurse or pharmacist. Sometimes there are ways to reduce side effects.
Most side effects don’t do any lasting harm. They gradually go away after your treatment finishes. Do not wait to contact your specialist nurse or doctor if you are worried about a side effect.
When to call your cancer care team about chemo side effects
Because your cancer care team will give you lots of information about side effects, you might be more aware of physical changes. Do not take any physical symptoms you have lightly. Some side effects are short-lived and minor, but others may be a sign of serious problems. Make sure you know how to reach someone on your team any time, including after hours, weekends, and holidays.
Contact your cancer care team right away if you have any of the following symptoms during chemo treatment:
- A fever higher than what your cancer care team has instructed (usually 100.5°F -101°F or greater )
- Bleeding or unexplained bruising
- A rash
- An allergic reaction, such as swelling of the mouth or throat, severe itching, trouble swallowing
- Intense chills
- Pain or soreness at the chemo injection site or catheter site
- Unusual pain, including intense headaches
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing (If you’re having trouble breathing call 911 first.)
- Long-lasting diarrhea or vomiting
- Bloody stool or blood in your urine
Anticancer drugs Safety
Chemotherapy is strong medicine, so it is safest for people without cancer to avoid direct contact with the drugs. Oncology nurses and doctors may wear gloves, goggles, gowns or masks because they are exposed to chemotherapy drugs every day. When the treatment session is over, these items are disposed of in special bags or bins.
Follow these safety measures to reduce exposure to chemotherapy drugs at home, both for you and your family and friends. Safety precautions can vary depending on the drugs you receive, so ask your treatment team about your individual situation. Store all tablets, capsules or injections as directed by your oncologist or pharmacist – they often need special storage to keep them effective and safe. Keep them out of reach of children and do not store them in a pill organiser with other medicines.
You can get more information on cancer drugs and cancer-related condition on:
This page lists and links to NCI’s pages of drugs approved for specific types of cancer in adults and children.
This page lists and links to NCI’s pages of drugs approved for specific types of cancer in children.
People with cancer may have conditions caused by the cancer or its treatment. Find drugs approved for some of these cancer-related conditions.