Antitumor antibiotics


Antitumor antibiotics are a type of cancer medicine that blocks cell growth by interfering with DNA, which is the genetic material of cells. Unlike antibiotics used to treat infections, antitumor antibiotics work by changing the genetic code of cancer cells to prevent them from growing and spreading throughout the body. However, many antitumor antibiotics can negatively affect the cardiovascular system by damaging the heart and blood vessels.

Read on to learn more about the different types of antitumor antibiotics and how they work.

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How it works

Most people hear the word “antibiotic” and associate it with medications designed to kill infection in the body. These types of antibiotics work by breaking down the bacterial cell or disrupting the bacterial energy source in the cell.

Antitumor antibiotics are designed to eliminate disease, especially cancer. Antitumor antibiotics work by invading cancer cells and preventing the genetic code, or DNA, in the cancer cell from replicating and spreading throughout the body.

Uses and Types

Anthracyclines are antitumor antibiotics that interfere with the way DNA copies itself during the cell cycle. They are widely used for a variety of cancers hence the name antitumor antibiotics. Anthracyclines are usually given intravenously (via an IV). Valrubicin is the exception where it is infused through a catheter (small flexible plastic tube).

Some types of antitumor antibiotics include:

Anthracyclines are an effective antitumor antibiotic, but they cause stress on the cardiovascular system along with other negative side effects. People with heart disease or other cardiovascular risk factors should avoid taking anthracyclines. Scientists have been working to develop new antitumor antibiotics that cause fewer negative side effects on healthy cells in the body.

Although there are a few new antitumor antibiotics approved for use by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), several are in Phase III clinical trials. These clinical trials are a critical last step before the FDA clears these drugs for use by the general public.

  • Pirarubicin: An antitumor antibiotic in phase III clinical trial that showed a very low negative impact on the cardiovascular system as well as a good effect on cancer cells specific to lymphomas, breast cancer and acute leukaemias.
  • Zorubicin: Another antitumor antibiotic in a phase III clinical trial, this antitumor antibiotic has shown strong positive effects on breast cancer and acute leukemia.
  • Pixantrone: This Phase III clinical trial antitumor antibiotic is being evaluated for use with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.


A major concern when administering antitumor antibiotics is that they can permanently damage the heart if given in high doses. Other serious side effects caused by these drugs include:

  • Myelosuppression: A condition in which the bone marrow has an impaired ability to produce red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, which can lead to anemia, leukopenia or thrombocytopenia.
  • Cardiotoxicity: A condition where treatment can cause damage to the heart.
  • Redness and irritation of the skin, similar to dermatitis from radiation therapy.

Lifetime dose limits, or cumulative doses, are often imposed on antitumor antibiotics. This is a method that healthcare specialists, such as oncologists, use to prevent these side effects of antitumor antibiotics.

In general, people who are diagnosed with cancer usually have an oncologist or doctor who specializes in treating different types of cancer. Another way for an oncologist to minimize the negative side effects of antitumor antibiotics might be to collaborate with a cardio-oncologist.

A cardio-oncologist is a new medical specialty within cardiovascular medicine who can provide valuable advice on oncology therapies that may cause unwanted cardiovascular side effects and how to prevent these side effects. The collaboration between an oncologist and a cardio-oncologist, although new, can bring a better quality of care to people affected by cancer and open the possibility of new therapies


Antitumor antibiotics are a specialized medicine used to treat different types of cancer. They can be very effective, but unfortunately can cause many negative side effects. However, advances in research are on the horizon for new antitumor antibiotics that may be less aggressive to the cardiovascular system to prescribe. If you are taking antitumor antibiotics, discuss your options with your healthcare provider to find the best treatment option for you.


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