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3 Main Types of Chemotherapy Agents

January 20, 2023
Est. Reading: 3 minutes

Chemotherapy agents are used to treat cancer because they can kill cancer cells via various mechanisms. Chemotherapy agents can be classified into three main groups: alkylating agents, antimetabolites, and natural products or plant-derived compounds.


3 Main Types of Chemotherapy Agents


Alkylating Agents


Alkylating agents are a type of chemotherapy drug class that works by adding an alkyl group to DNA, thereby causing DNA damage. Alkylating agents have been used to treat various cancers since the 1940s. Alkylating agents are broadly classified into three groups:


  • Nitrogen Mustards: These are the first group of alkylating agents to be used in chemotherapy, and they were developed during World War II as chemical warfare agents. Nitrogen mustards are cell-cycle specific and act mainly on cancer cells in the S phase of the cell cycle.


  • Nitrosoureas are alkylating agents containing a nitrosourea group that developed in the 1950s. They act on both replicating and non-replicating cancer cells, making them more effective against tumors with a high proliferative rate.


  • Alkyl Sulfonates: Alkyl sulfonates are alkylating agents that contain a sulfur atom and were developed in the 1970s. Alkyl sulfonates act mainly on non-replicating cancer cells, making them helpful in treating rapidly dividing tumors. Alkylating agents are still used in chemotherapy today because they are effective against various cancers and have relatively few side effects compared to other chemotherapy drugs. Additionally, alkylating agents can be combined with other chemotherapy drugs to increase their effectiveness as part of multi-drug therapy regimens. Alkylating agents can cause short and long-term side effects, and how patients should consult with their doctor before beginning treatment.


  • Platinum Complexes: This is a relatively new class of alkylating agents developed in the 1970s. Platinum complexes bind to DNA and interfere with DNA replication, thus leading to cell death. They are instrumental in treating ovarian cancer, as they are less toxic than other alkylating agents.




Antimetabolites are a type of chemotherapy drug class that works by disrupting the metabolic pathways in cancer cells. Antimetabolites are similar to normal metabolites and, therefore, can be mistaken for them by cellular enzymes, causing the drug to become incorporated into essential metabolic pathways, leading to cell death.

Antimetabolites are especially useful in treating certain types of leukemia because they interfere with DNA synthesis. Antimetabolites may also be used as part of multi-drug therapy regimens to increase the effectiveness of other chemotherapy agents. However, antimetabolites can cause short- and long-term side effects, so patients should consult with their doctor before beginning treatment.


3 Main Types of Chemotherapy Agents


Natural Products or Plant-derived Compounds


Natural products or plant-derived compounds are a type of chemotherapy drug class derived from natural sources such as plants, animals, and microorganisms. These natural products can act on cancer cells in various ways, such as blocking the growth and spread of tumors or interfering with DNA replication.

Natural products are especially useful in treating certain cancers because they are explicitly targeted to cancer cells and often cause fewer side effects than other drugs. Natural products can also be combined with other chemotherapy agents to increase their effectiveness in multi-drug therapy regimens.


Benefits and Side Effects of Chemotherapy Agents


Chemotherapy agents can be an effective cancer treatment, but they come with benefits and side effects that patients should be aware. The benefits of chemotherapy drugs include their effectiveness against a wide variety of cancers and their ability to be combined with other treatments to increase the overall efficacy.

Side effects of chemotherapy drugs vary depending on the type of drug used and can range from mild to severe. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, sleep disturbances, and fatigue. More severe side effects may include organ damage, infertility, or secondary cancer. Patients need to talk to their doctor about potential benefits and side effects before beginning chemotherapy so they can make informed decisions about their treatment options.

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