What is Targeted Therapy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Targeted therapy is cancer treatment with medications engineered to latch onto specific molecules to interfere with cellular processes, killing the cancer and limiting its spread. Such drugs are less invasive than traditional chemotherapy and can come with lower rates of damage to neighboring tissue, translating into fewer side effects and more comfort for the patient during the course of treatment. Numerous medications are available on the market, by prescription, and many more are in development at pharmaceutical companies.


To develop a targeted therapy, first a company needs to identify a target. It looks for a distinctive molecule only found in the cancer cells so it can exploit the cancer's weakness. Therapies may work in a number of ways. Some block metabolism, making it impossible for cells to divide and grow. Others interfere with nutrient uptake, causing cancer cells to divide, or triggering cell death. The drugs can also tag cancer cells for elimination by the immune system, allowing the body to do the work. Most interrupt cell signaling processes in some way.

This process can be very lengthy. It may involve synthetic drugs or drugs from nature, many of which are candidates for synthetic production after drug companies learn about their composition. Then the company tests the drug to make sure it is suitable and reasonably safe, before releasing it onto the market. Patients can often access clinical trials with new drugs if they meet the participant requirements, allowing them more chances at treatment if they do not respond to conventional therapies.

For some targeted therapy, the patient needs to receive testing first to see if the cancer will respond. All cancers are not alike, and may not contain the necessary molecules. If the cancer appears responsive, the patient can start taking the medication. Some patients must travel to chemotherapy infusion clinics while others can take drugs at home. In both cases, careful monitoring for side effects is important and the patient also needs follow-up appointments to check on the cancer's growth and spread.

Many of these medications are under patent and expensive. The benefits of targeted therapy can include decreased side effects, better chances of a positive outcome, and less need for multidrug regimens, many of which can be very grueling for patients. When a patient receives a cancer diagnosis, an oncologist can conduct a careful evaluation to make recommendations on the best course of action to take with treatment and management of the cancer. These may include the use of targeted therapy if it appears appropriate and useful for a patient's case.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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