About targeted cancer drugs

Read about targeted cancer drugs and when you might have them for CML.

How they work

Targeted cancer drugs are treatments that act on processes in cells or change the way that cells signal to each other. They can stimulate the body to attack or control the growth of cancer cells.

When you have it

You usually have targeted cancer drugs as your first treatment, whether your CML is in the chronic, accelerated or blast phase. The drugs for CML are mainly a type called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs). They block cancer cell growth.

Imatinib (Glivec)

Most people have imatinib as their first treatment. You usually continue taking imatinib for as long as it works. It can keep CML under control for many years.

Nilotinib (Tasigna)

You might have nilotinib:

  • if imatinib doesn't work or stops working
  • as a first treatment for chronic phase CML

Nilotinib can get CML into remission again if it has become resistant to imatinib.

Dasatinib (Sprycel)

You might have dasatinib if you have had imatinib or nilotinib and these drugs have stopped working. Or they caused too many side effects.

You usually carry on taking dasatinib for as long as it works. 

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) block chemical messengers (enzymes) called tyrosine kinases. Tyrosine kinases help to send growth signals in cells, so blocking them stops the cell growing and dividing.

Cancer growth blockers can block one type of tyrosine kinase or more than one type. TKIs that block more than one type of tyrosine kinase are called multi TKIs.

Single TKI

Diagram showing how growth factor inhibitors stop the signal inside the cell

Multi TKI

Diagram showing an example of how growth inhibitors can block more than one action in a cell

Newer treatments

Your doctor might recommend you have a different drug if you have had standard treatment with imatinib, nilotinib or dasatinib.

Ponatinib or bosutinib are newer tyrosine kinase inhibitors that target different proteins. You might have these drugs as part of a clinical trial or through the Cancer Drugs Fund. 

How you have targeted cancer drugs for CML

Most of the targeted drugs for CML are tablets. Your treatment team will tell you how often and when you need to take these.

Side effects

The side effects depend on the drug you have. Common side effects of tyrosine kinase inhibitors include:

  • higher risk of infection
  • a skin rash
  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • bruising
  • feeling sick
  • diarrhoea
  • loss of appetite

Interferon Alpha

Interferon Alpha is a different type of targeted treatment. It interferes with the growth of cancer cells and stimulates the immune system to attack cancer cells.

Interferon is not used as much for CML anymore. You might have it in certain circumstances. For example, your CML has come back following a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.

You have interferon as daily injections, just under the skin. You, or someone you live with, can learn to do the injections at home. But if you don't like the thought of that, your district nurse or practice nurse could do it instead.

The side effects of interferon include flu like symptoms such as aching muscles, a high temperature and weakness. You might also feel sick and lose your appetite

When you go home

Treatment with targeted drugs can be difficult to cope with for some people. Your nurse will give you a number to call (advice line) if you have any problems at home.

Contact your advice line if you have side effects or any concerns.
Last reviewed: 
18 Apr 2018
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    The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), August, 2016

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    Annals of Oncology, 28, (Supplement 4) pages 41-51, 2017

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    The lancet. April 2015. Volume 385, Issue 9976, 11–17 , Pages 1447–1459

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