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Winter 2009

Targeted-Therapy Drugs Open New Front on War Against Cancer


Researchers believe that the future of cancer treatment rests in new classes of drugs that take direct aim at the proteins and processes unique to cancer. Several of these targeted-therapy drugs have been approved for treating certain cancers, and many others are showing promising results in clinical trials for patients with cancers of all types.

“We now understand that cancer is a heterogeneous group of diseases, even when they involve the same organ, and we are beginning to learn how to characterize and classify those diseases and tailor our therapy appropriately,” says Dennis Slamon, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Revlon/UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Program. “That is changing the face of cancer treatment.”

Where medical oncologists once had to rely only on the blunt instrument of chemotherapy, which attacks both normal and abnormal cells, the newer targeted drugs discriminate to kill only the harmful tumor cells. This means these drugs are far less toxic and debilitating for patients than traditional cancer drugs. “Targeted therapy is based on knowledge of the biology of the tumor — understanding what the mechanism of the disease is and then designing drugs to block the various pathways that are essential to the tumor’s survival,” says Saeed Sadeghi, M.D., medical director of the UCLA/Santa Monica Hematology Oncology Practice.

Targeted therapy became a focus with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Herceptin a decade ago. The drug, which was developed in large part from research led by Dr. Slamon at UCLA, targets a mutation found in about one-quarter of breast-cancer patients and has improved disease-free survival by more than 50 percent. Similar drugs such as Gleevec, which attacks a mutant protein in a cancer-causing gene linked to a form of leukemia, have followed, and many more targeted drugs are being tested in clinical trials, often in combination with traditional therapies.

“We now have a number of good agents that can improve patient survival,” says Dr. Sadeghi, speaking of drugs currently undergoing trials. “In many cases, the side effects are limited or almost nonexistent. There is strict safety monitoring, and at the minimum the patient is receiving the standard of care.”  

To hear more about Herceptin, go to:


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