New medical treatments called targeted therapies are becoming available for lung cancer. Unlike traditional chemotherapy, these treatments target proteins on cancer cells or target normal cells that have been hijacked by the tumor in its attempts to grow. For that reason they tend to have fewer side effects that many of the medications used for cancer. Currently, these are used primarily for stage 3 and 4 lung cancer that has not responded to other treatments. Two of the more common targeted therapies include:
- Tarceva (erlotinib)
The surface of lung cancer cells are covered with a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which helps the cells divide. Tarceva works by not allowing EGFR to tell cancer cells to grow. While potentially effective in many kinds of patients, it has been shown to be more likely to work for those who have never smoked or in younger women. Given as a daily pill, the most common side effects are a skin rash similar to acne, and diarrhea. Though the skin rash can be a cosmetic nuisance, those who develop a rash with erlotinib are more likely to be responding to therapy.
- Avastin (bevacizumab)
Cancers need to make new blood vessels to bring nutrients to the cancer so it can grow.. This process of making new blood vessels is called angiogenesis. Avastin is considered an angiogenesis inhibitor – a medication that works to prevent cancers from making new blood vessels. It appears to prolong survival in those with advanced non-small cell lung cancer. The most common side effect is bleeding. For this reason it is not used for those on blood thinners, who are coughing up blood, or have cancer that has spread to the brain due to the risk of bleeding in the brain. It is given as an intravenous (IV) therapy every 2 to 3 weeks.
American Cancer Society. Targeted Therapies. 03/02/11. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/colonandrectumcancer/detailedguide/colorectal-cancer-treating-targeted-therapy
National Cancer Institute. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (PDQ). Treatment Option Overview. Updated 01/29/10. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/non-small-cell-lung/Patient/page4