What are targeted cancer therapies?
Targeted cancer therapies are drugs used to treat certain malignant tumours by blocking the action of particular molecular targets such as genes and proteins. They are classified as small molecules or monoclonal antibodies.
They are also called precision medicines.
How do targeted cancer therapies work?
Targeted cancer therapies interact with a target molecule to prevent tumour cells proliferating.
- The target molecule may be present in several different types of tumour.
- The molecule may be specific to a tumour (due to mutation) or may be more abundant in a tumour than in normal cells.
- This reduces the damage done to surrounding normal cells.
- Some drugs target fusion proteins, due to chromosomal abnormalities in the tumour.
Targeted cancer therapies are classified as:
- Hormone therapy
- Signal transduction inhibitors
- Gene expression modulators
- Apoptosis inducers
- Angiogenesis inhibitors
Who gets targeted cancer therapies?
Targeted therapies are currently used in dermatology for patients with advanced cancers. They are also used in clinical trials as adjuvant therapy (supplementary treatment given to people who are in remission from their cancer but are at high risk of relapse in the future).
Advanced skin cancers
What targeted therapies are available?
Several targeted therapies are marketed in dermatology to treat advanced skin cancers, and others are in development.
Several products are marketed to treat unresectable metastatic melanoma.
- Vemurafenib and dabrafenib target mutant cell growth signalling protein BRAF V600E.
- Trametinib inhibits the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signalling pathway.
- Cobimetinib is a mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase (MEK) inhibitor taken in combination with vemurafenib.
- Ipilimumab targets cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated antigen 4 (CTLA-4).
- Pembrolizumab targets the programmed cell death 1 (PD-1) receptor.
- Nivolumab is a PD-1-blocking antibody.
Basal cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma
Several products are being investigated to treat advanced cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma; these include:
- Products targeting mutations in the NOTCH gene and TP53 mutations
- Immune checkpoint inhibitors (drugs that target cancer cells for elimination by the immune system). The first of these, cemiplimab, was registered by the FDA in 2018.
Merkel cell carcinoma
- Avelumab is available to treat metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma.
- PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors are under investigation.
Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma and Kaposi sarcoma
- Bexarotene is a rexinoid that targets the retinoid X receptor.
- Alitretinoin gel is used for Kaposi sarcoma.
Cutaneous B-cell lymphoma
What are the side effects of targeted therapy?
Targeted therapies have many side effects, including adverse cutaneous reactions. In some cases, side effects are associated with excellent tumour response.
See Cutaneous adverse effects of checkpoint inhibitors and individual drug topics for more details.
How effective are targeted therapies?
The efficacy of targeted therapies is variable. They may lose their efficacy over time, having been initially successful at reducing tumour growth and in some cases leading to complete remission.
See individual drug topics for more details.
If you are not based in New Zealand, we suggest you refer to your national drug approval agency for further information about medicines (eg, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration and the US Food and Drug Administration) or a national or state-approved formulary (eg, the New Zealand Formulary and New Zealand Formulary for Children and the British National Formulary and British National Formulary for Children).