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Targeted cancer drugs

Find out what a targeted cancer drug is and some of the possible side effects. 

Cancer cells have changes in their genes that make them different from normal cells. These changes mean that the cell might grow faster and work differently from normal cells. Targeted cancer drugs take advantage of this and target the specific gene changes the cancer cells have. 

Targeted cancer drugs and ALL

The main targeted cancer drugs used for ALL are tyrosine kinase inhibitors or TKIs. They block tyrosine kinases, which are chemicals cells use to signal to each other. Some of these signalling systems tell the cancer cells to grow and divide.

Imatinib mesilate (Glivec) is a TKI drug which is often used to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). It is now also used to treat Philadelphia chromosome positive ALL. About 2 out of 10 adults with ALL (20%) and 1 in 20 children with ALL (5%) have the Philadelphia chromosome.

Research studies show that having imatinib as part of your first phase of treatment (remission induction therapy) improves your chances of getting into remission.

Once in remission you are likely to have a bone marrow transplant as long as you are well enough and a suitable donor has been found.

Side effects of targeted cancer drugs

All treatments have side effects. Everyone reacts differently to drugs and not everyone will get every side effect. The main side effects of TKIs are:

  • fatigue (tiredness)
  • diarrhoea
  • skin changes (rashes or reddening or darkening)
  • a sore mouth
  • weakness
  • loss of appetite
Last reviewed: 
12 May 2015
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • High complete remission rate and promising outcome by combination of imatinib and chemotherapy for newly diagnosed BCR-ABL-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia: a phase II study by the Japan Adult Leukemia Study Group

    M Yanada and others

    Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2006

    Volume 24, Issue 3

  • Alternating versus concurrent schedules of imatinib and chemotherapy as front-line therapy for Philadelphia-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (Ph+ ALL)

    B Wassmann and others

    Blood, 2006

    Volume 108, Issue 5

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