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About targeted cancer drugs

Find out about targeted cancer drugs, the different types and when you have them for lung cancer.

What are targeted cancer drugs?

Cancer cells have changes in their genes (DNA) that make them different from normal cells. These changes mean that they behave differently. Cancer cells can grow faster than normal cells and sometimes spread. Targeted cancer drugs work by ‘targeting’ those differences that a cancer cell has.

Targeted drugs work in different ways. For example, they can:

  • stop cancer cells from dividing and growing
  • encourage the immune system to attack cancer cells
  • stop cancers from growing blood vessels

You might hear some targeted drugs called biological therapies.

When you might have these drugs

You might have targeted cancer drug treatment for non small cell lung cancer that has spread outside the lung or to other parts of the body.

You might have some drugs as part of a clinical trial or together with chemotherapy.

The type of targeted drug you have depends on the type of proteins on your cancer cells. Doctors check your cancer cells to see which proteins they have before you start the treatment.

Types of targeted drugs

Erlotinib (Tarceva), gefitinib (Iressa) or afatinib (Giotrif)

Erlotinib, gefitinib and afatinib work by blocking proteins on cancer cells called epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR).

You might have one of these drugs if you have advanced non small cell lung cancer and your cancer cells have changes (mutations) in the EGF receptors. Your doctor will check your cancer cells to see if this is the case. Cancers that have these changes are called EGFR positive.

Other drugs include osimertinib (Tagrisso).

Between 10 and 15 people out of every 100 with non small cell lung cancer (10 to 15%) have EGFR positive cancer.

Crizotinib (Xalkori), ceritinib (Zykadia) and alectinib (Alecensa)

Crizotinib, ceritinib and alectinib are tyrosine kinase inhibitors. They work by blocking an enzyme called anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK). They are used to treat some people with advanced non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

These drugs only work in cancer cells that have an overactive version of ALK. So your doctor will check your cancer cells to see if this is the case. About 5 in 100 people (5%) with NSCLC have this. It is called ALK positive disease.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) have recommended that people have ceritinib if they have already had treatment with crizotinib. The NICE guidance applies to England and Wales.

Alectinib is currently available through the Cancer Drugs Fund as a first treatment for advanced ALK positive NSCLC.

Nintedanib (Vargatef)

Nintedanib is a cancer growth blocker. It blocks protein kinases on the cancer cells. Nintedanib blocks a number of these proteins and is called a multi kinase inhibitor. It also stops the cancer cells growing their own blood vessels, which the cells need to be able to grow.

Doctors use nintedanib for a type of non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) called adenocarcinoma. It is for people who have already had one type of chemotherapy and whose cancer has grown back or spread.

Nivolumab (Opdivo)

Nivolumab is a type of immunotherapy that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. 

Nivolumab is licensed to treat adults with non small lung cancer (NSCLC) who have already had chemotherapy. It is for people whose disease has spread outside of the lung into the surrounding tissue (locally advanced), or to other parts of the body (advanced).

Pembrolizumab (Keytruda)

Pembrolizumab is a type of immunotherapy. Your doctor might recommend you have pembrolizumab if you have advanced non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and your cancer cells have particular proteins. It targets and blocks a protein called PD-1 on the surface of certain immune cells called T-cells. Blocking the PD-1 protein triggers the T-cells to find and kill cancer cells.

Having targeted cancer drug treatment

You have your treatment as tablets or capsules, or through a tube into your bloodstream. This depends on the type of drug you have.

Tablets or capsules

You must take tablets and capsules according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

You should take the right dose, not more or less.

Talk to your specialist or advice line before you stop taking a cancer drug.

Into the bloodstream

You have some of these drugs through a tube into your bloodstream. A nurse puts a small tube into a vein in your hand or arm and connects the drip to it.

Or you might have a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drug into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment.

Before you start the treatment

You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You have these either a few days before or on the day you start treatment. If you are having chemotherapy alongside the targeted drugs you also have blood tests before each round or cycle of chemotherapy.

Side effects

The side effects you have depend on:

  • which drug you have
  • whether you have it alone or with other drugs
  • the amount of drug you have (the dose)
  • your general health

Everyone is different and the side effects vary from person to person. You might have a few side effects. And they may be mild or more severe. 

A side effect may get better or worse during your course of treatment. Or more side effects may develop as the treatment goes on. 

For more information about the side effects of your treatment, go to the individual drug pages.

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.

If you also have chemotherapy

If you are having chemotherapy as well as a targeted cancer drug, you usually have the chemotherapy into your vein through a drip. You have this in the cancer day clinic every few weeks.

Chemotherapy drugs that you might have in combination with targeted drugs include:

  • cisplatin
  • carboplatin
  • docetaxel

Targeted cancer drugs in clinical trials

You might have one of the current targeted cancer drugs or a new drug as part of a clinical trial. In some trials you have the drugs in combination with chemotherapy.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.