Mesothelioma Medications and Anti-cancer Drugs
Chemotherapy drugs are typically the most effective in treating mesothelioma. However, several additional anti-cancer drugs are often paired with treatments. Once an oncologist diagnoses a patient with mesothelioma, he or she will develop a treatment plan; the patient must follow to achieve the best prognosis. The program includes a combination of therapies, including chemotherapy, radiation, or emerging treatments for an optimal outcome. Medications generally used to treat mesothelioma include:
- Photodynamic treatment
- Targeted treatment
- Clinical trial medications
Deciding which medicine or treatment to use hinges on several factors: how far the disease has spread, the patient’s medical history, and the patient’s current medical standing. Specialists perform specific tests to determine the majority of this information.
Tests may include:
- CT scans of the chest and abdomen
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Positron emission tomography (PET)
These tests enable your physician to determine the stage of cancer and develop an effective treatment plan. These tests aren’t always required. It depends on the patient and each situation.
Chemotherapy is often paired with anti-cancer drugs for maximum effect. There are several different types of chemotherapy medications used to treat mesothelioma. Some of those include:
- Pemetrexed (Alimta)
- Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
Specialists administer chemotherapy to mesothelioma patients in a multitude of ways, depending on how far the cancer has spread, where it’s located, and other health factors. Extensive testing is still needed to find the best combination of medications and chemo for maximum efficacy. Currently, the best results are when chemotherapy treatment is paired with surgery. Other versions of chemotherapy are:
In this version of chemotherapy, a specialist injects chemotherapeutic medication into the blood through a vein. Then, it goes into the bloodstream and throughout the body to destroy cancer cells.
Intrapleural or Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy drugs can be administered directly into the pleura, or chest cavity, or into the peritoneum, the abdominal cavity. Doctors will use a catheter for this treatment; placing it through a small incision located in the chest or abdominal wall.
How Chemotherapy Helps
Chemotherapy is often used in combination with other medications or treatments. If the tumors are small enough, chemotherapy works as a standalone treatment. Chemo can also be used after radiation and surgery to attack the microscopic cancer cells not visible to the naked eye. Additionally, chemotherapy helps prepare patients for different treatment methods, such as shrinking a tumor before surgery, known as neoadjuvant therapy. Finally, in cases where the tumor is unresectable, chemo helps relieves cancer symptoms, known as palliative care.
Side-Effects of Chemotherapy
Chemo medications are designed to attack and kill rapidly dividing cells. Unfortunately, cancer cells aren’t the only cells in the body that divide quickly. Bone marrow, the lining of the mouth and intestines, and hair follicles all contain cells that divide at a rapid pace. This can lead to several potential side effects:
- Loss of Hair
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting and Nausea
- Increased chance of infections, bruising or bleeding
- Sores in the mouth
There are other medications given to relieve the side-effects of chemotherapy. Talk to your physician about to find out about different options based on your specific case. However, the side-effects usually wear off once the treatment cycle is complete.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) combines a photosensitizer or photosensitizing agent, and light to target and destroy specific cells. PDT works when the photosensitizers are exposed to particular wavelengths of light that cause the formation of oxygen, consequently killing cancer cells.
How Photodynamic Treatment Helps
Historically, photodynamic therapy medications have improved a mesothelioma prognosis. Since the wavelength determines how far the light travels into the body, doctors use wavelengths and photosensitizers to project the light into different areas of the body. A medication used explicitly in treating mesothelioma is called porfimer sodium (Photofrin).
Side-Effects of Photodynamic Treatment
Porfimer sodium makes the eyes and skin hypersensitive to light for about six weeks once treatment has stopped. Patients who have undergone photodynamic therapy are advised to stay away from direct sunlight and bright indoor lights for this time.
Immunotherapy uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. This treatment stimulates the immune system to work more efficiently, attacking cancerous cells and boosting the immune system with useful additives, including human-engineered immune system proteins.
Researchers are still testing immunotherapy treatments in clinical trials:
- Atezolizumab (Tecentriq)
- Nivolumab (Opdivo)
- Pembrolizumab (Keytruda)
- Ipilimumab (Yervoy)
Doctors administer immunotherapy using several different methods. These include immune checkpoint inhibitors, cancer vaccines, and general immunotherapies.
Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors
Medications that allow the immune system to locate and destroy cancer cells.
Vaccines trigger an immune response against certain diseases and are often used in cancer treatment and prevention.
These therapies bolster the immune system and encourage it to attack cancer cells.
How Immunotherapy Helps
Unlike chemotherapy, which attacks both healthy and cancerous cells, immunotherapy offers a more targeted approach, with fewer side-effects. When doctors administer immunotherapies, they strengthen the body’s defenses and enable white blood cells to locate and kill cancer cells.
Side-Effects of Immunotherapy
The side-effects for immunotherapy include:
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Weight loss
- Skin rash or blisters
Unlike chemotherapy, which uses medications to treat cancer by attacking all cells; targeted therapy attacks cancer-specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that aids in cancer growth and survival. Different types of targeted therapy include:
Angiogenesis is the creation of new blood vessels and a normal function of healing and growth in the body. Unfortunately, if a person has cancer, angiogenesis also helps the cancer cells multiply and spread. When new blood vessels form, they carry blood containing nutrients and oxygen to the tumors, enabling them to grow.
Anti-angiogenesis drugs stop the growth of new blood vessels, blocking angiogenesis, consequently “starving” the tumors and stunting their ability to grow and spread to other parts of the body. Angiogenesis inhibitors, also known as small-molecule drugs, include:
- Bevacizumab (Avastin)
- Ramucirumab (Cyramza)
Monoclonal antibodies are made to block a specific target on the outside of cancer cells or to send toxic substances directly to the harmful cells. They’re also a form of immunotherapy and are used as a substitute for immune system proteins to destroy cancer cells. These antibodies are designed to attack specific areas on diseased cells. Monoclonal antibodies are also used in combination with chemo and radiation therapies.
Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor Inhibitors (EGFR)
According to recent studies, blocking epidermal growth factor receptors may inhibit or prevent mesothelioma tumor growth. Inhibitor medications include:
- Afatinib (Gilotrif)
- Gefitinib (Iressa)
How Targeted Therapy Helps
Since targeted therapies mainly attack specific genes, proteins, or tissues that help cancer grow and spread, side-effects are typically less severe, and not as damaging to healthy cells.
Side-Effects of Targeted Therapy
Targeted therapy inhibits normal cell functions to attack cancer. Side-effects can include:
- High blood pressure
- Nausea or Diarrhea
- Low white blood cell counts and an increased risk of infections
- Headaches and pains
- Sores of the mouth
- Lost appetite
Clinical trials are a critical pillar of mesothelioma research. These studies involve patients and help doctors discover innovative ways to improve treatments and quality of life. Some mesothelioma medications being tested in clinical trials are:
How Clinical Trials Help
Clinical trials help researchers experiment with new ways to treat, find, diagnose, prevent, and manage symptoms and side-effects of cancer and subsequent treatments. There are many clinical trials available for mesothelioma patients. Visit The National Cancer Institute for a complete list of tests and locations.
Side-Effects of Clinical Trials
Side-effects of clinical trials vary, based on the type and combination of medications and therapies.
While there are no radiation-specific medications except for medications administered to relieve radiation side-effects, anti-cancer drugs are paired with radiation treatment as a form of neoadjuvant therapy. For example, oncologists will administer chemotherapeutic medications to shrink tumors before radiation treatment.
Radiation treatment is also used after surgery to kill remaining cancer cells. This form of therapy utilizes high-energy beams from X-rays and protons to target specific areas of the body. In advanced stages of cancer, radiation may be used to minimize signs and symptoms.
Mesothelioma Medications at a Glance
Medications used to treat cancer and mesothelioma vary and are continually being researched and tested. Researchers are regularly making discoveries that have the potential to change and improve anti-cancer drugs, including mesothelioma medications and therapies.
Learn more about your treatment options. Download our free mesothelioma guide.