Types of Chemotherapy Drugs

When we created Callaix, we had to decide how to organize 200+ medicines.

Pharmacists and scientists use several ways to classify drugs. Drugs are chemicals, and like other chemicals, they can be organized by their molecular structure. Another is by origin, and this method is often used for natural products such as the vinca alkaloids. Mechanism of action (biological target) is one way we group medicines. For instance, inhibitors of Cyclin-Dependent Kinases could be a class, or angiogenesis inhibitors could be a class. Further, we tend to identify drugs made as monoclonal antibodies.

Many drugs could fall into more than one class. Some monoclonal antibodies work by antiangiogenesis. Some metabolic drugs inhibit more than one type of kinase. There is no perfect system.

We organize chemotherapy drugs by category:

Alkylating Agents

Kinase Inhibitors

Vinca Alkaloids



Aromatase Inhibitors

Topoisomerase Inhibitors

mTor Inhibitors


HDAC Inhibitors

PARP Inhibitors

Selective Inhibitors of Nuclear Export

Half of patients who develop cancer get some form of chemotherapy treatment. Most chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells outright, or stop their reproduction and spread by inhibiting metabolic functions of the cancer cell. These drugs are called cytotoxic. They can also act on healthy cells (because they also divide) which is the basis for side effects and unwanted complications of therapy.

Some chemotherapy agents work in specific parts of the cell’s reproductive cycle.  You see agents that are described as inhibiting the S-Phase or the M-Phase.  Others are non-phase specific.

Cell Cycle

Other drugs are not explicitly cytotoxic, but instead work by disrupting the ability of the tumor to stay intact. This is the method of action that most targeted therapies use.

Each patient gets a drug or group of drugs administered by oral or intravenous injection (or other less commonly used routes such as intrathecal injection) at a precise dose, based on patient weight, and given over a finite and defined time period. Adjuvant therapy is chemotherapy given to high risk patients after other definitive local therapy (radiation or surgery) has removed the tumor. It is established therapy for breast, colorectal, osteosarcoma, Wilm’s tumor, and some stages of gastric, non-small lung cell cancers and some melanomas. In contrast, neoadjuvant therapy is given before other localized therapy (such as surgery or radiation) is used. It may be beneficial in treatment of advanced but limited breast tumors, laryngeal, esophageal, bladder, anal cancers and some sarcomas.

Ways to administer chemotherapy

Cancer Mutations and Personalized Therapy

Names of cancer medicines