Science Questions

What chemicals are used in Chemotherapy?

Sun, 4th Nov 2012

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Kevin Wolz asked:

Hey Chris,


Thanks so much for a great podcast!


My question is regarding the actual chemicals used in chemotherapy treatments for cancer. I understand the basic nature of the therapy as a poison that mostly affects the cancer cells, but I'm curious as to the specific chemicals that are used. Have the same chemicals been used for a long time, or are new one always being added/replaced? How many different chemicals are actually used in the treatment, or is it just one super-drug? Are different chemicals used for different types of cancer?




David K. -   Well, I think the original approach to systemic cancer treatment after radiation and surgery had failed was to use very toxic, poisonous drugs to try to get cancer cells to kill themselves.  As you might imagine, this caused a lot of toxicity with the side effects that most people are very well aware of with chemotherapy and the products didn’t work very well. 

I’d say, over the last 15 years, we’ve come up with much better and more specific ways of targeting cancers using very clever specific molecules that turn cancer’s pathways and genes off.  We’ve also come up with antibody therapy which is using antibodies which human make normally after infection and targeting these specifically to cancer cell markers on the surface of cancer cells.  This has been a very effective way to target breast cancer with something called Herceptin and also, to turn off the blood supply to tumours with something called Avastin.


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That's hard to say since there are more than 100 kinds of chemotherapy drugs in use today. However, most of them fit into four categories: alkylating agents, vinca alkaloids, cytotoxic antibiotics and anti-metabolites. They all attack and kill cells that are dividing and multiplying, but each does so at a different stage. Because of this, chemotherapy regimens consist of drugs from more than one of these categories. ATremor, Sun, 17th Jan 2010

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