What are targeted cancer drugs?

Targeted cancer drugs work by ‘targeting’ the differences in neuroendocrine tumour (NET) cells compared to normal cells that help them survive and grow. 

For a NET, you might have treatment with sunitinib, everolimus and interferon. 

When you have targeted cancer drugs

You might have targeted drugs for a NET that has spread to other parts of the body (metastatic) and can’t be removed with surgery. You usually have it when other treatments are no longer working.

You may have sunitinib or everolimus if you have a NET that started in the pancreas (pancreatic NET). Everolimus can also help people with certain types of NETs that started in the gut or the lungs. The gut includes the:

  • stomach
  • small bowel
  • large bowel and rectum (colorectal)


Sunitinib is also called Sutent. It is a type of targeted drug called a protein kinase inhibitor. Protein kinase is a chemical messenger (an enzyme) that tell cells to grow. Sunitinib blocks the protein kinase, so it can stop the NET from growing. 

You usually take sunitinib capsules every day, with or without food.


Everolimus is also called Afinitor. It works by stopping a protein called mTOR from working properly. mTOR controls other proteins and triggers cancer cells to grow. So everolimus can stop the NET from growing or may slow it down. 

You usually have everolimus as a tablet that you swallow every day, with or without food.


Interferon is also called interferon alpha or Intron A. It is a man made version of a substance that the body makes as part of the immune response. The immune response is when the body reacts to anything foreign or abnormal such as infection or cancer cells. 

Interferon works in several ways. It:

  • interferes with how NET cells grow and multiply
  • stimulates the immune system to attack cancer cells

You may have interferon on its own or with a drug called octreotide. Octreotide is a type of somatostatin analogue.

You usually have interferon as an injection under the skin (subcutaneously) 3 times a week. Your nurse may teach you how to give the injection yourself at home. Or a family member can learn how to do it, so you don’t have to travel to hospital for treatment.

Side effects

Possible side effects of targeted drugs for NETs include:

  • a drop in the number of blood cells, increasing your risk of infection, bleeding, breathlessness and looking pale
  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • flu-like symptoms
  • feeling or being sick
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • changes to the way your liver works
  • skin rash
  • sore mouth
Tell your doctor or nurse about any side effects you have. They can give you medicine to reduce the side effects and help you feel better.


Researchers are trying to understand more about how targeted drugs help people with NETs. Some research is looking into targeted drugs and chemotherapy or somatostatin analogues to see how they work together. 

Your doctor might ask you to have treatment with a targeted drug as part of a clinical trial. 

We have more information about research and clinical trials in the sections about the different types of NETs.


Treatment for neuroendocrine tumours can be difficult to cope with for some people. Your nurse will give you phone numbers to call if you have any problems at home. 

If you have any questions about treatment, you can talk to Cancer Research UK’s information nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
18 Mar 2021
Next review due: 
19 Mar 2024
  • Guidelines for the management of gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine (including carcinoid) tumours (NETs)
    JK Ramage and others
    Gut, 2012. Vol 61, Pages 6-32

  • Gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine neoplasms: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    M. Pavel and others
    Annals of Oncology 2020, Vol 31, Issue 5 

  • Everolimus and sunitinib for treating unresectable or metastatic neuroendocrine tumours in people with progressive disease
    The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2017

  • Consensus Guidelines for the Management of Patients with Neuroendocrine Tumours
    Scottish Neuroendocrine Tumour Group (SCONET), 2015

  • Electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC)
    Accessed March 2021

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