Targeted Therapy for Ovarian Cancer

Treatment for ovarian cancer usually involves several forms of treatment. This helps to attack the cancer in different ways. Treatment can vary depending on your health, any other health conditions you have, the type and stage of your cancer, and your personal choices.

One kind of therapy used to treat ovarian cancer is targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses drugs to identify and attack cancer cells while attempting to minimize damage to healthy cells. These drugs attack the parts of cancer cells that separate them from normal, healthy cells.1

There are different kinds of targeted therapies. In general, they interfere with how a cancer cell grows, repairs itself, or communicates with other cells.1

Is targeted therapy the same as chemotherapy?

While the general term “chemotherapy” means drugs to treat cancer, targeted therapy is different from standard chemotherapy. Standard chemotherapy is toxic to most cells. It damages both healthy and cancerous cells, which is why so many different side effects can occur.2

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Traditional chemotherapy usually kills existing cancer cells. Targeted therapies often stop cancer cells from multiplying or copying themselves. This means that targeted therapies generally help prevent future cancer cells from forming, which is different than traditional chemotherapy.2

How does targeted therapy work?

Targeted therapy drugs are made to act on certain proteins and genetic differences in cancer cells. They can also find and block messages that encourage cancer cell growth. Examples of targets of these drugs can include:2

  • An excess of a certain protein on a cancer cell
  • A certain protein on a cancer cell
  • A mutated protein on a cancer cell
  • DNA/genetic changes that are not found in a healthy cell

Targeted therapy can act by:2

  • Blocking or turning off chemical signals that tell cancer cells to grow or multiply
  • Changing proteins to encourage cancer cell death
  • Stopping the construction of new blood vessels that feed cancer cells
  • Triggering the immune system to help kill the cancer cells
  • Carrying toxins to the cancer cells to help kill them but leaving the healthy cells alone

What are the different types of ovarian cancer targeted therapies?

Although there are many different targeted therapy drugs, not every one is used for ovarian cancer. Targeted therapy drugs that are used for ovarian cancer include:1,3

  • Angiogenesis inhibitors – These drugs attach to the protein VEGF and stop them from signaling new blood vessels to form. This slows or stops cancer growth.
  • PARP inhibitors – These drugs are often used with those who have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation but can also be used in some people without a BRCA mutation. PARP inhibitor drugs make it hard for tumors to repair DNA that has been damaged, resulting in cancer cell death instead of more cancer cells.3

Some targeted therapies work on cancer cells with NTRK gene mutations. These mutations lead to abnormal proteins that may cause cancer cells to grow. However, only a very small number of ovarian cancers have mutations in the NTRK gene.1,3

What are possible side effects of targeted therapy?

Side effects can vary depending on the specific drug you are taking. The most common side effects of targeted therapy drugs include:3

  • Diarrhea
  • Liver problems
  • Skin problems, including rash and loss of hair color
  • High blood pressure
  • Problems with blood clotting and wound healing
  • Gastrointestinal perforation (when a hole forms through the stomach, bowel, or small intestine)

These are not all the possible side effects of targeted therapy drugs. Talk to your doctor about what to expect with the specific drug you are taking or if you experience any changes that concern you during treatment with targeted therapy.

Things to consider

Targeted therapy may not be right for everyone. Depending on the specific medicine, these drugs may be used alone or with other drugs to treat ovarian cancer. In some cases, cancer cells become resistant to these drugs, and they may stop working.3

Before beginning treatment with targeted therapy, talk to your doctor about any other health issues you have. Also tell your doctor about any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.

If you have questions about targeted therapy, talk with your doctor about whether it may be right for you and the possible side effects, risks, and benefits.

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Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: May 2021