Targeted therapies providing new treatment options for people with cancer

1 August 2013

Over the past ten years, several new classes of targeted anti-cancer therapies have made their way into mainstream therapy for cancer.

Unlike chemotherapy which targets all dividing cells whether cancerous or healthy, the new anti-cancer medicines specifically treat the cancer cells.

Writing in the latest edition of Australian Prescriber, Associate Professor Winston Liauw from St George Hospital and the University of New South Wales says that the search for more targeted cancer therapies has been helped along by a better understanding of cancers at the molecular level.

“Cancers have specific characteristics such as being able to replicate, being able to invade tissue, and an ability to evade the immune system,” he says.

“But each of these characteristics creates a target for therapy.

“There is a range of new targeted anti-cancer medicines available and we’re increasingly seeing that people taking these medicines can be managed by their own GP, as the drugs are often taken orally.

“In general, these targeted therapies don’t cause the same kind of side effects as chemotherapy, so while they do have side effects of their own, this also means that people who previously were unable to have chemotherapy may now receive treatment with one of the new medicines.”

According to the author, all of the common cancers and many rare tumours now have at least one type of available targeted therapy.

For these drugs to work, the patient’s cancer must have the target receptor. Prescribing of these medicines requires that the patient has a companion diagnostic test to help ensure the therapy is appropriate for that target.

“It’s expected that many more targeted anti-cancer therapies will come into routine clinical use over the coming years,” Associate Professor Liauw writes. “The use of these medicines will also be improved by further development of the companion diagnostic tests.”

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Australian Prescriber is an independent peer-reviewed journal providing critical commentary on therapeutic topics for health professionals, particularly doctors in general practice. It is published every two months and distributed to health professionals free of charge, and is also available online at 

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