How Does Targeted Therapy Work?

To design a drug that seeks out and interacts with cancer cells, researchers first identify a target molecule.

If the cancer cells show an unusual level of proteins associated with cell growth, then those proteins may be a good target.

In some cases, genetic testing of cancer cells may reveal:

  • The production of mutated proteins that spurs cell growth.
  • That two genes within a cancer cell’s chromosomes have fused together, creating a fusion gene. This gene may produce a protein that sparks cancer growth — another potentially good target for therapy.

Some targeted therapies use small molecules that are able to enter cancer cells easily. Other targeted therapies use larger antibodies to bind to the surface of the cells.

Common Targeted Cancer Therapies

Some common targeted therapies for cancer include:

  • Apoptosis inducers, which cause controlled cell death (apoptosis) in cancer cells.
  • Angiogenesis inhibitors, which prevent the growth of blood vessels to tumors.
  • Gene expression modulators, which alter a cell’s genes to make it perform in a certain way.
  • Monoclonal antibodies, which bind to the target cell to deliver a toxic substance.
  • Signal transduction inhibitors, which interrupt the molecules that help a cell respond to environmental cues (for instance, the message to continue cell division).

Researchers have found several molecular differences among certain types of cancer cells that respond well to targeted therapies.

Your UPMC Hillman Cancer Center doctor may order testing to see if your genetic profile matches one or more of these known differences.

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