What are targeted cancer drugs?

Targeted cancer drugs work by ‘targeting’ those differences that help a cancer cell to survive and grow. They are one of the main treatments for some cancers. For example, advanced melanoma and some types of leukaemia. 

There are many different types of targeted drugs. These are grouped together depending on how they work. These groups include monoclonal antibodies, cancer growth blockers, drugs that block cancer blood vessel growth and PARP inhibitors.

How do targeted cancer drugs work?

Cancer cells have changes in their genes (DNA) that make them different from normal cells. These changes mean that they behave differently. Cancer cells can grow faster than normal cells and they die less easily too. Cancer cells also sometimes spread.

Targeted cancer drugs work by ‘targeting’ those differences that a cancer cell has.

The changes in genes that cause one cancer type are often different to the genetic changes causing another. For example, the changes that make a lung cancer grow can be different to ones that make a breast cancer grow. And the changes in the genes of one person who has lung cancer might be different to the changes in someone else with lung cancer.

Targeted drugs target those differences that help a cancer to grow. There are many different targets on cancer cells and different drugs that target them.

Different ways of working

Targeted drugs might:

  • stop cancer cells from dividing and growing
  • seek out cancer cells and kill them
  • encourage the immune system to attack cancer cells
  • stop cancers from growing blood vessels
  • help carry other treatments such as chemotherapy, directly to the cancer cells

You might hear some targeted drugs called biological therapies. 

Why might you have targeted drug therapy?

Targeted drugs are not suitable for all types of cancers. But they are one of the main treatments for a few types of cancers. For some other cancers, you have targeted cancer drugs in combination with other treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Researchers are also looking at targeted drugs in clinical trials for many types of cancer.

Whether you have targeted therapy depends on:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • how far your cancer has spread (the stage)
  • other cancer treatments you’ve had


Before you have some types of targeted drugs you might need to have tests using some of your cancer cells or a blood sample. This is to find out whether the treatment is likely to work. These tests look for changes in certain proteins or genes. 

Your cancer specialist can tell you if this applies to your treatment. This is not the case for all targeted drugs and you don’t always need this test.

To test your cancer cells, your specialist needs a sample (biopsy) of your cancer. They might be able to use some tissue from a biopsy or operation you have already had. 

Types of targeted drugs

There are many different types of targeted drugs. These are grouped together depending on how they work. So for example, cancer growth blockers stop the proteins that trigger the cancer cell to divide and grow. 

Some targeted drugs stop cancers from growing blood vessels. A cancer needs a good blood supply to provide itself with food and oxygen and to remove waste products. The process of growing new blood vessels is called angiogenesis. Drugs that stop cancers from growing blood vessels are called anti angiogenic drugs. Anti angiogenic drugs can slow the growth of the cancer and sometimes shrink it. 

Other groups include a particular type of drug, such as a monoclonal antibody. These target specific proteins on cancer cells.

There isn't a simple way of grouping targeted drugs that is easy to follow. This can sometimes be confusing. Some drugs belong to more than one group because they work in more than one way. For example, a drug that works by blocking cancer cell growth may also be a monoclonal antibody.

Some monoclonal antibodies trigger the immune system to attack and kill cancer cells. So these monoclonal antibodies are also a type of immunotherapy. 

For ease, we have grouped targeted drug therapy into:

  • monoclonal antibodies
  • cancer growth blockers
  • drugs that block cancer blood vessel growth
  • PARP inhibitors

Ask your specialist about targeted drugs. They can explain:

  • whether this treatment is suitable for you
  • what the aim of treatment would be
  • what it would involve and the side effects

This page is due for review. We will update this as soon as possible.

  • Antiangiogenic therapy in oncology: current status and future directions
    GC Jayson and others
    Lancet, 2016 .Volume 30 Issue 388:518-29

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • The Role of Angiogenesis in Cancer Treatment
    M Rajabi and SA Mousa
    Biomedicines, 2017. Volume 21, Issue 5 (2)

  • State of the art in anti-cancer mAbs
    SM Chiavenna and others
    Journal of Biomedical Science, 2017. Volume 24, Issue 15

  • Clinical development of targeted and immune based anti-cancer therapies
    N A Seebacher and others
    Journal of Experimental Clinical Cancer Research 2019 Apr 11: 38 (1): 156

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

Last reviewed: 
06 Jan 2021
Next review due: 
03 Jan 2024

Related links