Monoclonal antibodies

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on April 26, 2022.

Monoclonal antibodies are engineered molecules that are designed to attack specific features found on cancer cells. This cancer therapy is designed to mimic the way antibodies produced by B-cells in the immune system seek out and attack genetic features called antigens on bacteria or infectious cells. Monoclonal antibodies are designed to seek out specific proteins on cancer cells that are linked to those cells’ growth.

How do monoclonal antibodies work in cancer treatment?

The generic names of many monoclonal antibody drugs end in the letters “mab,” such as trastuzumab or bevacizumab. Some monoclonal antibodies are considered inhibitor drugs because they are designed to inhibit or stop specific behaviors in cancer cells that help them grow and thrive. For instance, angiogenesis inhibitors are drugs designed to stop tumors from developing new blood supplies.

Monoclonal antibodies may be used either alone to destroy cancer cells, or as carriers of other substances used either for treatment or diagnostic purposes. They may be used to deliver chemotherapy or radiation therapy directly to cancer cells. For example, chemotherapeutic agents can be attached to monoclonal antibodies to deliver high concentrations of these toxic substances directly to the tumor cells. Some monoclonal antibodies may be used to carry radioactive substances to cancer cells in the body, pinpointing the location of metastases that were previously undetected by other methods. These approaches may be less toxic and produce better results than conventional chemotherapy or radiation therapy because they reduce the delivery of harmful agents to normal tissues.

Before determining whether a monoclonal antibody is an appropriate treatment, an oncologist may order tests to help determine which protein may be driving the cancer’s behavior. These tests may include advanced genomic testing, genetic testing or an examination by a pathologist.

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