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Mesothelioma Medications

Drugs are important in the treatment of mesothelioma, the deadly cancer that attacks the tissue lining organs in the body known as the mesothelium. Because this is an aggressive cancer that is difficult to treat, most doctors and specialists choose to tackle treatment with a multimodal approach that includes chemotherapy medications, radiation, and surgery, but which may also include novel drugs. Some of these are still being tested in clinical trials.

In addition to chemotherapy drugs, which are designed to kill fast growing cells in the body, mesothelioma patients may also benefit from targeted therapy drugs, photodynamic drugs, anti-angiogenesis drugs, and immunotherapy drugs. Some of these are still experimental, but all hold the potential to help treat this illness. Many patients may be able to benefit from these drugs by participating in clinical trials.

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Chemotherapy Medications

Chemotherapy is the most common and well-known medication-based treatment for most types of cancer, including mesothelioma. It involves using drugs that target and kill cancer cells. Unfortunately, though, most of these medications are not specific to tumors; they are specific to all cells that grow and divide rapidly. This means that they kill cancer cells, but also healthy cells that grow quickly, like blood cells and hair follicle cells.

In spite of the unpleasant and often painful side effects that it can cause, chemotherapy is one of the best and most effective treatments for a number of cancers, including mesothelioma. Patients must endure the side effects to receive the benefits. There are only a few drugs approved for use in chemotherapy for this mesothelioma: Alimta, pemetrexed, or a combination of cisplatin and gemcitabine.

This doesn’t mean that other chemotherapy drugs cannot be used in mesothelioma treatment. Doctors may prescribe other chemotherapy agents such as carboplatin, doxorubicin, and navelbine, but these alternatives have not been clinically proven to be as effective, or they are still in trials to prove effectiveness and safety.

Chemotherapy Side Effects

Although this is the most effective type of medicated treatment for most cases of mesothelioma, chemotherapy is not perfect. Because it is not specific to cancer cells, it causes a number of side effect that range from mild to severe. Because of side effects chemotherapy drugs are typically given in cycles with a couple of weeks in between administering the drug so that the body can recover.

Chemotherapy medications may be given orally, but most often they are administered intravenously. This allows the drugs to get right into the bloodstream where they can circulate throughout the whole body and attack any cells growing and dividing at a rapid pace. Common side effects of chemotherapy drugs include:

  • Hair Loss
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Nausea and Vomiting,
  • Bleeding
  • Infections

Photodynamic Drugs

Another type of medication that may be used in mesothelioma treatment is described as a photosensitizer, a photodynamic drug, or a photosensitizing agent. These are drugs that are activated to kill cancer cells when exposed to light.

Different drugs of this type are activated by a different wavelength of light, which can travel a certain distance through the body. The location of the tumor informs the choice of drug and wavelength of light.

To be treated by this strategy a patient is injected with the chosen photosensitizing agent. This drug travels to all areas of the body, but stays longer in cancer cells than in healthy cells. After two or three days, most of the medication has been naturally eliminated from the rest of the body, but it lingers in the tumors. A light on the end of an endoscope can then be inserted into the body and aimed at the tumor to activate the medication, which then kills cancer cells.

Immunotherapy Mesothelioma Medications

Another novel line of attack against mesothelioma is with immunotherapy medications. There are various kinds of substances used to treat cancer this way, but the general idea is to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells.

Cancer cells are too similar to healthy cells in the body for a normally-operating immune system to recognize and attack them. The immune system just doesn’t see them as foreign or harmful. In order to get the immune system to attack, it must be pushed in some way.

One type of immunotherapy medication may work by generally making the immune system more active. Others work by specifically training the immune system to attack cancer cells using proteins called antibodies. Immunotherapy drugs work better for some types of cancers than others, and trials are ongoing to test new medications in patients with mesothelioma. Sometimes the medications work well on their own, but the may also work more effectively in combination with other types of therapies.

Targeted Medications

One of the newest lines of treatment in mesothelioma and other types of cancers is the development of drugs that are more specific than chemotherapy drugs. These are drugs that recognize, target and kill cancer cells only.

These drugs are even being designed to target cells from specific types of cancer. For instance, mesothelin is a protein that has been found to be expressed mostly in mesothelioma tumors. Drugs that can specifically target this compound are currently being tested.

Another very important line of research in targeted therapy is called anti-angiogenesis treatment. Angiogenesis is the process of making new blood vessels, which is usually a normal and healthy process in the body. In cancer, though, a tumor is constantly growing new blood vessels to provide it with blood and nutrients. If this process can be halted, it may kill the cells in the tumor by depriving them of blood flow. Some anti-angiogenesis medications have proven to be disappointing in trials, but others show promise. Some may even work best when used in conjunction with chemotherapy.

There is a variety of medications used to treat mesotheliomia, with chemotherapy drugs leading the way. These have proven to be the most effective drugs in treating this type of cancer, but the side effects are a major drawback. As research continues, doctors and patients are hopeful that newer medications will be as effective or more so and will cause fewer side effects. Targeted medications, immunotherapy and photodynamic drugs, and anti-angiogenesis drugs all show promise and have fewer side effects than chemotherapy. Much more research needs to be done, but even now patients with mesothelioma and their doctors have a lot of options for medication treatment.

Page Edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster

Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by
Luis Argote-Greene, MD

Luis Marcelo Argote-Greene, MD
Luis Argote-Greene is an internationally recognized thoracic surgeon. He has trained and worked with some of the most prominently known thoracic surgeons in the United States and Mexico, including pioneering mesothelioma surgeon Dr. David Sugarbaker. He is professionally affiliated with University Hospitals (UH). His areas of interest and expertise are mesothelioma, mediastinal tumors, thoracic malignancies, lung cancer, lung transplantation, esophageal cancer, experimental surgery, and lung volume reduction. Dr. Argote-Greene has also done pioneering work with video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS), as well as robotic assisted minimally invasive surgery. He has taught the procedures to other surgeons both nationally and internationally.

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