One of the main problems with using chemotherapy is that it is a broad acting therapy – it does not only target cancer cells. This is why the side effects of chemotherapy are broad ranging and affect many areas of the body. This limits the dose people are able to tolerate.
Targeted therapies are more efficient in their action as they will only act on cells which contain specific cell markers, and will not act on other cells without the markers.
Each of our body’s cells contain thousands of markers that identify that the cells belong to you and what function they perform. Our immune system use these markers. When certain white blood cells come into contact with other cells, they look for markers that identify if the cell belongs to you or not. If the cell has the markers that identify that they belong to you, the white blood cell moves on. If the markers on the cell do not belong to you, the white blood cell will attempt to destroy it, as it is likely a foreign pathogen (eg. like a bacteria) that could do you harm.
Target therapies work with a similar principle. Each targeted therapy has a specific cell marker that it can target. If a cell has the marker, the therapy is able to affect that cell. If a cell does not have the specific marker, the therapy will not affect it. This ensures the therapy is targeted to the problem cells only.
Targeting treatments may be able to reduce the general side effect profile seen in the more generalised chemotherapies.
Biological therapy is a type of treatment that works with your immune system.
It can help fight cancer (eg Rituximab for lymphomas) or help control side effects (how your body reacts to the drugs you are taking) from other cancer treatments like chemotherapy (eg G-CSF helps to increase white cell counts after chemotherapy).
While biological therapy may seem like chemotherapy as they are both given to fight cancer, they work in different ways. Biological therapy helps your immune system fight cancer. Chemotherapy attacks the cancer cells directly.
Biological therapies use the body’s immune system, either directly or indirectly, to attack cancer cells. This resource from the United States’ National Cancer Institute features a summary of the types of biological therapies and how they are used: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Therapy/biological.
Last updated on June 14th, 2019
Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.