Doxorubicin is a form of antibiotic that healthcare professionals often use as a chemotherapy drug. People may refer to it as “red devil” chemotherapy due to its red color and potentially unpleasant side effects.

Cancer is a condition that occurs when the cells in a person’s body multiply out of control, which can lead to the formation of tumors and other negative health effects.

Chemotherapy is a form of cancer treatment that uses medications to kill cancer cells. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), there are many different types of chemotherapy.

Read on to learn more about what doxorubicin is, its uses, how it works, how doctors administer it, its side effects, and when to speak with a doctor.

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Doxorubicin is a form of anthracycline medication, which doctors use for chemotherapy. Healthcare professionals extract these drugs from a family of bacteria called Streptomyces. Doxorubicin is taken from the bacteria called Streptomyces peucetius.

Doctors frequently use doxorubicin to treat solid tumors.

Healthcare professionals may also refer to doxorubicin as doxorubicin hydrochloride or hydroxydaunorubicin, or as one of its brand names, such as Adriamycin.

The National Cancer Institute notes that healthcare professionals use doxorubicin to treat various forms of cancer, including:

Doctors may use another form of doxorubicin called liposomal doxorubicin hydrochloride to treat conditions such as:

DNA is a molecule that contains genetic information, which provides instructions for the development and functioning of an organism.

DNA replicates itself into newly created cells.

A DNA molecule contains two strands that wrap around each other, called a double helix. When DNA replicates, these two strands separate, and new DNA strands are formed to join them. This creates two pairs of DNA.

Anthracyclines work by inserting themselves between these two strands. They attach themselves to the DNA, preventing it from copying itself.

Doxorubicin prevents the enzyme topoisomerase II in cancer cells from working. This enzyme is involved in DNA replication. Doxorubicin inserts itself between the DNA and the enzyme, preventing the DNA from replicating.

Doctors administer doxorubicin intravenously, which means they inject the medication into a person’s veins.

Healthcare professionals may administer chemotherapy drugs via a catheter, which is a thin, flexible tube that doctors insert into a person’s vein. They then feed the chemotherapy drugs into the person’s vein through the catheter.

Doctors generally treat a person with doxorubicin every 21 days. The process may take 15–20 minutes or longer. A healthcare professional should administer doxorubicin hydrochloride liposome more slowly to prevent a person from having a reaction to it.

Doctors may use doxorubicin alone or alongside other drugs. The type of drugs a doctor uses can depend on:

  • the type of cancer a person has
  • where the cancer is
  • how big the tumor is
  • whether the cancer has spread or not
  • results of tests on the tumor
  • how it affects the person’s overall health and function
  • a person’s age, current medications, and overall health — including other conditions
  • what types of cancer treatment a person has had previously

Doxorubicin may cause side effects. Common side effects include:

After taking doxorubicin a person may experience a decrease in neutrophils, which are a type of white blood cell, and platelets, which are a component in blood that helps it clot.

They may also have an increased risk of developing secondary cancers, which are other types of cancer in addition to the type for which a person is receiving doxorubicin treatment.

Other possible side effects of doxorubicin include:

Animal studies indicate that doxorubicin may have an effect on an unborn fetus. Therefore, a person should not receive doxorubicin in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Doxorubicin can permanently damage a person’s heart if they receive high doses. The risk of developing a heart issue increases as a person has more doxorubicin exposures. This means that a person can only receive a certain amount of the drug in their lifetime.

Possible heart problems that can occur due to doxorubicin include:

If doxorubicin leaks from a person’s blood vessel into the surrounding tissues, it can cause:

  • blistering
  • ulcers, or open sores
  • necrosis, which is tissue death

If necrosis occurs due to a leak of doxorubicin, a doctor will need to remove the damaged tissue.

A person who is undergoing treatment with doxorubicin should see a doctor frequently. A healthcare professional can monitor any side effects a person is experiencing and provide possible methods for coping with them.

A doctor should monitor a person’s heart function before and during doxorubicin treatment. People should also see a doctor more often if they are on higher doses of doxorubicin. This allows a doctor to pick up on any potential heart issues or other side effects quickly.

Heart issues caused by doxorubicin can occur months or years after a person has finished treatment. A person should arrange regular checkups with a doctor to monitor their heart once they finish their treatment.

People may call doxorubicin red devil chemotherapy due to its red color and unpleasant side effects. Doctors may use it to treat many types of cancer by itself, or alongside other drugs.

Doxorubicin works by interfering with the DNA inside a cancer cell by preventing the cell from replicating.

It can have various side effects including heart problems.

A person should visit a doctor regularly while receiving doxorubicin treatment. A doctor can monitor a person’s side effects and provide methods to manage them. A doctor can also monitor a person’s heart and overall health to check for any issues.