What are Antineoplastic Agents?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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Antineoplastic agents are drugs which are designed to attack neoplasms, areas of abnormal tissue growth characterized by rapid cell growth. While some neoplasms are benign, others are malignant and can be harmful. Antineoplastics are used to treat malignant neoplasms, with the goal of preventing their spread, destroying the neoplasm, slowing the rate of growth, or otherwise limiting the actions of the neoplasm.

There are a number of different classes of antineoplastic agents. All of these medications are designed to act in some way on the rapidly dividing cells inside the growth. This can be problematic, because many antineoplastic agents cannot differentiate between malignant and benign or even beneficial cells. People who take these medications can experience severe side effects because the drugs will attack their healthy cells as well as the unhealthy ones.

Chemotherapy drugs are a well known example of antineoplastic agents. When a doctor prescribes such drugs, testing is done to determine which kind of drug would be most effective, and which dosage would be most appropriate. Antineoplastic agents are often used as part of a larger therapy plan, as when someone receives surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation to eliminate a cancerous growth and reduce the possibility that the growth will return. Treatment plans which involve these drugs are commonly supervised by an oncologist who specializes in cancer care.


Such drugs can damage the liver, lungs, heart, and kidneys in patients, and they also commonly lead to infertility. Patients can also experience side effects such as water retention, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and fatigue while they are taking the drugs. These drugs date to the 1940s and a number of pharmaceutical companies have explored new formulations and applications for them, with the goal of developing drugs which tightly target a neoplasm and don't take out as many healthy cells in the process.

People who work around antineoplastic agents, such as nurses, pharmacists, and hospital technicians, need to be careful. Long term exposure to these drugs can cause a number of harmful health effects. It's important to wear gloves and to observe the proper precautions when handling these drugs to reduce the risk of exposure, and to be attentive to signs of emerging health problems which might be linked with exposure to these drugs. Controlling access to areas where these drugs are stored and utilized is also key, so that only authorized personnel with proper training are allowed into areas where they might be exposed.


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