Targeted therapies for lung cancer

Targeted therapies are drugs which interfere with the way cells grow and divide. They may be used to treat lung cancer. 

About targeted therapies for lung cancer

Targeted therapy and immunotherapy drugs are usually used to treat non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that has spread outside the lung or to other parts of the body. They are not commonly used for small-cell lung cancer (SCLC).

To find out the right treatment for you, the cancer cells taken during a biopsy or surgery are tested. Tests look for gene mutations (changes) and whether the cancer cell is making certain proteins. This is called molecular testing. Tests can also be done on blood taken with a blood test, but this is rare.

The results help your doctor to decide which treatment is the most suitable for you. The drug you have may also depend on whether you have squamous or adenocarcinoma NSCLC.

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will tell you which drugs are suitable for you. You may have some of these drugs as part of a clinical trial.

EGFR inhibitors for lung cancer

You may have one of these drugs if tests find an abnormal change in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene. It makes an abnormal form of EGFR protein, which can make the cancer cells grow. This is sometimes called EGFR-positive lung cancer.

The following drugs block signals from EGFR to the cancer cells which stops them growing:

You take them as tablets. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information. You can read more about the individual drugs in our treatments and drugs A-Z.

If you have been told you have a type of NSCLC called EGFR+ lung cancer, you can find information and support at EGFR Positive UK.

ALK inhibitors for NSCLC

A small number of people (1 in 25) with (NSCLC) have a change in a gene called anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK). It makes an abnormal protein that can make the cancer cells grow. This is sometimes called ALK-positive NSCLC. If you have this, your doctor may give you one of these drugs:

You take these drugs as capsules.

If your treatment stops working your doctor may advise another ALK drug, such as:

  • ceritinib (Zykadia®) if you have not had it
  • brigatinib (Alunbrig®)

If you have been told you have a rare type of NSCLC called ALK+ lung cancer, you can find information and support at ALK Positive UK.

ROS1 gene change

About 1 in 50 people with NSCLC cancer have a change in a gene called ROS1. If you have this, you may be given crizotinib (Xalkori®).

Your doctor or nurse can give you more information. We have more information about taking these drugs, and their possible side effects.

Nintedanib (Vargatef®) for adenocarcinoma NSCLC

Nintedanib (Vargatef®) is a targeted therapy drug used to treat adenocarcinoma type NSCLC. It may be given if the cancer comes back, or has spread after you have already had chemotherapy. Nintedanib is given with the chemotherapy drug docetaxel.

You take it as a capsule. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information. We have more information about these drugs, and their possible side effects.

Getting support

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our lung cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at  cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Lung cancer – Diagnosis and management. Clinical guideline 2019.

    Metastatic non-small cell lung cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. 2018.

    European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO). Early and locally advanced non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC): ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. 2017.

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr David Gilligan, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We try to make sure our information is as clear as possible. We use plain English, avoid jargon, explain any medical words, use illustrations to explain text, and make sure important points are highlighted clearly.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected. Our aims are for our information to be as clear and relevant as possible for everyone.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.