Leukemia medications kill cancer cells and prevent cancer cells from dividing and multiplying. Leukemia medications may include chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy drugs.
Leukemia medications work in different ways to destroy cancer cells or prevent them from growing.
This article examines the medications doctors may use to treat leukemia and their common side effects.
Leukemia medications work in different ways to kill cancer cells. Doctors consider several factors before recommending a treatment approach, including:
- the type of leukemia
- the stage of the cancer
- a person’s age
- whether people have had previous treatments and how the cancer responded
For some people, one drug therapy may effectively treat leukemia, while others may need a combination of medications.
Using a combination of drugs may reduce the likelihood of cancer cells becoming drug-resistant and increase the chance of curing the cancer or achieving long-term remission.
Types of drug therapy for leukemia may include the following:
Cancer cells rely on the building blocks of DNA and RNA to grow and survive. Antimetabolites mimic these natural building blocks, so the cancer cells attach to the drug instead of DNA or RNA. This means the cells cannot copy the genetic material to divide and multiply and cannot survive.
- cladribine (Leustatin)
- fludarabine (Fludara)
- pentostatin (Nipent)
Antimitotics prevent mitosis, which is the term for cell division. Antimitotics damage the cancer cells, preventing them from dividing and multiplying.
- vincristine (Oncovin)
- vinblastine (Velban)
Antitumor antibiotics attach to the DNA in cancer cells to kill the cells and prevent them from dividing and multiplying.
Antitumor antibiotics include:
- daunorubicin (Cerubidine)
- doxorubicin (Adriamycin or Doxil)
- idarubicin (Idamycinv)
- mitoxantrone (Novantrone)
Asparagine-specific enzymes derive from Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. Some cancer cells require an amino acid called
- asparaginase erwinia chrysanthemi
- L-asparaginase (Elspar)
Biosimilars have a similar structure and result as biologics but are
- rituximab-arrx (Riabni)
- rituximab-abbs (Truxima)
Bisphosphonates do not directly target cancer cells, but they can treat the high calcium levels that some leukemias cause. Bisphosphonates can help reduce bone breakdown, pain, and the risk of fractures.
- zoledronic acid (Zometa or Reclast)
- pamidronate (Aredia)
DNA-damaging agents (antineoplastics) and alkylating agents
DNA-damaging agents, antineoplastics, and alkylating agents alter DNA to prevent cancer cells from growing.
DNA-damaging agents include:
- cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan)
- carboplatin (Paraplatin)
Alkylating agents include:
DNA-repair enzyme inhibitors
DNA-repair enzyme inhibitors attack enzymes in cancer cells that repair DNA damage. Without proper DNA repair, the cells cannot grow.
- etoposide (VePesid)
- topotecan (Hycamtin)
Histone deacetylase inhibitors
Histone deacetylase inhibitors target proteins that affect DNA to attack cancer cells. Examples include:
- vorinostat (Zolinza)
- romidepsin (Istodax)
Corticosteroids are synthetic hormones that can kill cancerous immune cells or lymphocytes. Examples include:
Hypomethylating or demethylating agents
Hypomethylating or demethylating agents slow down or reverse methylation in cancer cells — an important process in how cells grow and replicate. Examples include:
Immunomodulators suppress or stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells. Immunomodulators include:
- interferon alfa-2a (Roferon-A)
- interferon alfa-2b (Intron A)
Janus-associated kinase (JAK) inhibitors
JAK inhibitors interfere with signaling pathways that can lead to inflammatory and immune responses in leukemia. JAK inhibitors include:
Monoclonal antibodies target specific antigens on cancer cells to destroy the cancer cell. Monoclonal antibodies include:
- alemtuzumab (Campath)
- rituximab (Rituxan)
Phosphoinositide 3-kinase inhibitors (PI3K inhibitors)
PI3K inhibitors block PI3K enzymes in cancer cells, which may prevent cancer cells from growing. PI3K inhibitors include:
- idelalisib (Zydelig)
- duvelisib (Copiktra)
Proteasome inhibitors work by blocking the action of proteins called proteasomes, helping to kill cancer cells in your body. Proteasome inhibitors include:
Selective inhibitors of nuclear export (SINE)
SINE drugs block proteins that support tumor growth, causing cancer cells to die. SINEs include:
- selinexor (Xpovio)
Tyrosine kinase inhibitors
Tyrosine kinase inhibitors attach themselves to proteins called tyrosine kinase, which prevents them from signaling abnormal white blood cells to grow. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors include:
Side effects may vary with each type of drug, but common side effects of leukemia medications include the following:
- anemia, a low red blood cell count
- soreness in the mouth or the lining of the gastrointestinal tract
- hair loss
- loss of appetite
- fertility problems
- problems affecting the thyroid, heart, or lungs
Leukemia medications aim to destroy cancer cells or prevent them from growing. Medications may include chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy drugs.
Doctors will decide the best course of treatment based on certain factors, such as a person’s age and the stage and type of leukemia.