Cancer Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy, also shortened and known as Chemo, is treatment with drugs that either kill cancer cells or prevent them from growing. Because of how they work, chemotherapy drugs will also have a similar effect on certain normal cells, causing a range of potentially serious side effects.

Most chemotherapy is delivered intravenously, although a number of agents can be administered orally (e.g., melphalan, busulfan, capecitabine).

There are many intravenous methods of drug delivery, known as vascular access devices. These include the winged infusion device, peripheral cannula, midline catheter, peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC), central venous catheter and implantable port. The devices have different applications regarding duration of chemotherapy treatment, method of delivery and types of chemotherapeutic agent.

Traditional chemotherapeutic agents are cytotoxic by means of interfering with cell division (mitosis) but cancer cells vary widely in their susceptibility to these agents. To a large extent, chemotherapy can be thought of as a way to damage or stress cells, which may then lead to cell death if apoptosis is initiated.

Many of the side effects of chemotherapy can be traced to damage to normal cells that divide rapidly and are thus sensitive to anti-mitotic drugs: cells in the bone marrow, digestive tract, and hair follicles. This results in the most common side-effects of chemotherapy: myelosuppression (decreased production of blood cells, hence also immunosuppression), mucositis (inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract), and alopecia (hair loss).

Because of the effect on immune cells (especially lymphocytes), chemotherapy drugs often find use in a host of diseases that result from harmful overactivity of the immune system against self (so-called autoimmunity). These include Rheumatoid arthritis, Systemic lupus erythematosus, Multiple sclerosis, Vasculitis, and many others.

Cancer Chemotherapy Treatment Strategies

There are a number of strategies in the administration of chemotherapeutic drugs used today. Chemotherapy may be given with a curative intent or it may aim to prolong life or to palliate symptoms.

  • Combined modality chemotherapy is the use of drugs with other cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy, surgery and/or hyperthermia therapy.
  • Induction chemotherapy is the first line treatment of cancer with a chemotherapeutic drug. This type of chemotherapy is used for curative intent.
  • Consolidation chemotherapy is given after remission in order to prolong the overall disease-free time and improve overall survival. The drug that is administered is the same as the drug that achieved remission.
  • Intensification chemotherapy is identical to consolidation chemotherapy but a different drug than the induction chemotherapy is used.
  • Combination chemotherapy involves treating a patient with a number of different drugs simultaneously. The drugs differ in their mechanism and side-effects. The biggest advantage is minimising the chances of resistance developing to any one agent. Also, the drugs can often be used at lower doses, reducing toxicity.
  • Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is given prior to a local treatment such as surgery, and is designed to shrink the primary tumor. It is also given to cancers with a high risk of micrometastatic disease.
  • Adjuvant chemotherapy is given after a local treatment (radiotherapy or surgery). It can be used when there is little evidence of cancer present, but there is risk of recurrence. It is also useful in killing any cancerous cells that have spread to other parts of the body. These micrometastases can be treated with adjuvant chemotherapy and can reduce relapse rates caused by these disseminated cells.
  • Maintenance chemotherapy is a repeated low-dose treatment to prolong remission.
  • Salvage chemotherapy or palliative chemotherapy is given without curative intent, but simply to decrease tumor load and increase life expectancy. For these regimens, in general, a better toxicity profile is expected.

All chemotherapy regimens require that the patient be capable of undergoing the treatment. Performance status is often used as a measure to determine whether a patient can receive chemotherapy, or whether dose reduction is required. Because only a fraction of the cells in a tumor die with each treatment (fractional kill), repeated doses must be administered to continue to reduce the size of the tumor. Current chemotherapy regimens apply drug treatment in cycles, with the frequency and duration of treatments limited by toxicity to the patient.


Alkylating Agents

Alkylating agents are the oldest group of chemotherapeutics in use today. Originally derived from mustard gas used in World War I, there are now many types of alkylating agents in use. They are so named because of their ability to alkylate many molecules, including proteins, RNA and DNA. This ability to bind covalently to DNA via their alkyl group is the primary cause for their anti-cancer effects.

DNA is made of two strands and the molecules may either bind twice to one strand of DNA (intrastrand crosslink) or may bind once to both strands (interstrand crosslink). If the cell tries to replicate crosslinked DNA during cell division, or tries to repair it, the DNA strands can break. This leads to a form of programmed cell death called apoptosis.

Alkylating agents will work at any point in the cell cycle and thus are known as cell cycle-independent drugs. For this reason the effect on the cell is dose dependent; the fraction of cells that die is directly proportional to the dose of drug.

The subtypes of alkylating agents are the nitrogen mustards, nitrosoureas, tetrazines, aziridines, cisplatins and derivatives, and non-classical alkylating agents. Nitrogen mustards include mechlorethamine, cyclophosphamide, melphalan, chlorambucil, ifosfamide and busulfan. Nitrosoureas include N-Nitroso-N-methylurea (MNU), carmustine (BCNU), lomustine (CCNU) and semustine (MeCCNU), fotemustine and streptozotocin.

Tetrazines include dacarbazine, mitozolomide and temozolomide. Aziridines include thiotepa, mytomycin and diaziquone (AZQ). Cisplatin and derivatives include cisplatin, carboplatin and oxaliplatin. They impair cell function by forming covalent bonds with the amino, carboxyl, sulfhydryl, and phosphate groups in biologically important molecules. Non-classical alkylating agents include procarbazine and hexamethylmelamine.


Anti-metabolites are a group of molecules that impede DNA and RNA synthesis. Many of them have a similar structure to the building blocks of DNA and RNA.

The building blocks are nucleotides; a molecule comprising a nucleobase, a sugar and a phosphate group. The nucleobases are divided into purines (guanine and adenine) and pyrimidines (cytosine, thymine and uracil). Anti-metabolites resemble either nucleobases or nucleosides (a nucleotide without the phosphate group), but have altered chemical groups.

These drugs exert their effect by either blocking the enzymes required for DNA synthesis or becoming incorporated into DNA or RNA. By inhibiting the enzymes involved in DNA synthesis, they prevent mitosis because the DNA cannot duplicate itself.

Also, after misincorporation of the molecules into DNA, DNA damage can occur and programmed cell death (apoptosis) is induced. Unlike alkylating agents, anti-metabolites are cell cycle dependent. This means that they only work during a specific part of the cell cycle, in this case S-phase (the DNA synthesis phase). For this reason, at a certain dose, the effect plateaus and proportionally no more cell death occurs with increased doses. Subtypes of the anti-metabolites are the anti-folates, fluoropyrimidines, deoxynucleoside analogues and thiopurines.

The anti-folates include methotrexate and pemetrexed. Methotrexate inhibits dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR), an enzyme that regenerates tetrahydrofolate from dihydrofolate.

When the enzyme is inhibited by methotrexate, the cellular levels of folate coenzymes diminish. These are required for thymidylate and purine production, which are both essential for DNA synthesis and cell division.

Pemetrexed is another anti-metabolite that affects purine and pyrimidine production, and therefore also inhibits DNA synthesis. It primarily inhibits the enzyme thymidylate synthase, but also has effects on DHFR, aminoimidazole carboxamide ribonucleotide formyltransferase and glycinamide ribonucleotide formyltransferase.

The fluoropyrimidines include fluorouracil and capecitabine. Fluorouracil is a nucleobase analogue that is metabolised in cells to form at least two active products; 5-fluourouridine monophosphate (FUMP) and 5-fluoro-2′-deoxyuridine 5′-phosphate (fdUMP). FUMP becomes incorporated into RNA and fdUMP inhibits the enzyme thymidylate synthase; both of which lead to cell death.

Capecitabine is a prodrug of 5-fluorouracil that is broken down in cells to produce the active drug. The deoxynucleoside analogues include cytarabine, gemcitabine, decitabine, Vidaza, fludarabine, nelarabine, cladribine, clofarabine and pentostatin. The thiopurines include thioguanine and mercaptopurine.

Anti-microtubule Agents

Anti-microtubule agents are plant-derived chemicals that block cell division by preventing microtubule function. Microtubules are an important cellular structure composed of two proteins; α-tubulin and β-tubulin. They are hollow rod shaped structures that are required for cell division, among other cellular functions.

Microtubules are dynamic structures, which means that they are permanently in a state of assembly and disassembly. Vinca alkaloids and taxanes are the two main groups of anti-microtubule agents, and although both of these groups of drugs cause microtubule dysfunction, their mechanisms of action are completely opposite.

The vinca alkaloids prevent the formation of the microtubules, whereas the taxanes prevent the microtubule disassembly. By doing so, they prevent the cancer cells from completing mitosis. Following this, cell cycle arrest occurs, which induces programmed cell death (apoptosis). Also, these drugs can affect blood vessel growth; an essential process that tumours utilise in order to grow and metastasise.

Vinca alkaloids are derived from the Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus (formerly known as Vinca rosea). They bind to specific sites on tubulin, inhibiting the assembly of tubulin into microtubules. The original vinca alkaloids are completely natural chemicals that include vincristine and vinblastine. Following the success of these drugs, semi-synthetic vinca alkaloids were produced: vinorelbine, vindesine, and vinflunine. These drugs are cell cycle-specific. They bind to the tubulin molecules in S-phase and prevent proper microtubule formation required for M-phase.

Taxanes are natural and semi-synthetic drugs. The first drug of their class, paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific Yew tree, Taxus brevifolia. Now this drug and another in this class, docetaxel, are produced semi-synthetically from a chemical found in the bark of another Yew tree; Taxus baccata. These drugs promote microtubule stability, preventing their disassembly. Paclitaxel prevents the cell cycle at the boundary of G2-M, whereas docetaxel exerts its effect during S-phase. Taxanes present difficulties in formulation as medicines because they are poorly soluble in water.

Podophyllotoxin is an antineoplastic lignan obtained primarily from the American Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and Himalayan Mayapple (Podophyllum hexandrum or Podophyllum emodi). It has anti-microtubule activity, and its mechanism is similar to that of vinca alkaloids in that they bind to tubulin, inhibiting microtubule formation. Podophyllotoxin is used to produce two other drugs with different mechanisms of action: etoposide and teniposide.

Topoisomerase Inhibitors

Topoisomerase inhibitors are drugs that affect the activity of two enzymes: topoisomerase I and topoisomerase II. When the DNA double-strand helix is unwound, during DNA replication or transcription, for example, the adjacent unopened DNA winds tighter (supercoils), like opening the middle of a twisted rope.

The stress caused by this effect is in part aided by the topoisomerase enzymes. They produce single- or double-strand breaks into DNA, reducing the tension in the DNA strand. This allows the normal unwinding of DNA to occur during replication or transcription. Inhibition of topoisomerase I or II interferes with both of these processes.

Two topoisomerase I inhibitors, irinotecan and topotecan, are semi-synthetically derived from camptothecin, which is obtained from the Chinese ornamental tree Camptotheca acuminata. Drugs that target topoisomerase II can be divided into two groups.

The topoisomerase II poisons cause increased levels enzymes bound to DNA. This prevents DNA replication and transcription, causes DNA strand breaks, and leads to programmed cell death (apoptosis). These agents include etoposide, doxorubicin, mitoxantrone and teniposide. The second group, catalytic inhibitors, are drugs that block the activity of topoisomerase II, and therefore prevent DNA synthesis and translation because the DNA cannot unwind properly. This group includes novobiocin, merbarone, and aclarubicin, which also have other significant mechanisms of action.

Cytotoxic Antibiotics

The cytotoxic antibiotics are a varied group of drugs that have various mechanisms of action. The common theme that they share in their chemotherapy indication is that they interrupt cell division. The most important subgroup is the anthracyclines and the bleomycins; other prominent examples include mitomycin C, mitoxantrone, and actinomycin.

Among the anthracyclines, doxorubicin and daunorubicin were the first, and were obtained from the bacterium Streptomyces peucetius. Derivatives of these compounds include epirubicin and idarubicin. Other clinically used drugs in the anthracyline group are pirarubicin, aclarubicin, and mitoxantrone. The mechanisms of anthracyclines include DNA intercalation (molecules insert between the two strands of DNA), generation of highly reactive free radicals that damage intercellular molecules and topoisomerase inhibition.

Actinomycin is a complex molecule that intercalates DNA and prevents RNA synthesis.

Bleomycin, a glycopeptide isolated from Streptomyces verticillus, also intercalates DNA, but produces free radicals that damage DNA. This occurs when bleomycin binds to a metal ion, becomes chemically reduced and reacts with oxygen.

Mitomycin is a cytotoxic antibiotic with the ability to alkylate DNA.


Chemotherapy for lymphoma often consists of several drugs given together, as a Combination Therapy. There are several advantages to using Combinations:

  • Different drugs damage or kill cancer cells in different ways making some more effective with certain types of cancer than others.
  • Combination Therapy provides a more effective way to kill tumor cells because using drugs together greatly improves the impact of the drugs on the cancer.
  • Drugs added together can be applied in lower doses, which helps reduce the likelihood and severity of side effects.

Prevent drug resistance

A single dose of chemotherapy drugs only kills a percentage of the cancer cells. As a result, multiple doses are necessary to try and kill all of the cancer cells.

Chemotherapy is scheduled as frequently as possible to minimize tumor growth, prevent the development of resistant cancer cells, and achieve the best treatment outcome.

A Chemotherapy treatment regimen is a combination of anticancer drugs given at a certain dose in specific sequence according to a strict schedule.

Skeel RT (2003)
Handbook of Cancer Chemotherapy
Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. ISBN 0-7817-3629-3