What Are Antitumor Antibiotics?

Also known as antineoplastic antibiotics and anticancer antibiotics

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Antitumor antibiotics are a type of anticancer drug that blocks cell growth by interfering with DNA, which is the genetic material in cells. Unlike antibiotics used to treat infections, antitumor antibiotics work by changing the genetic code in cancer cells to stop 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.

Woman inspecting cells under microscope

Luis Alvarez / Getty

How It Works

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

Antitumor antibiotics are designed to eliminate disease, specifically cancer. Antitumor antibiotics work by invading cancer cells and blocking the genetic code, or DNA, within the cancer cell from reproducing and spreading throughout the body.

Uses and Types

Anthracyclines are antitumor antibiotics that interfere with how the DNA copies itself during the cell cycle. They are widely used for a variety of cancers hence the name antitumor antibiotics. Anthracyclines are usually administered 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 strain on the cardiovascular system as well as other negative side effects. People with an existing heart condition or other cardiovascular risk factors should avoid taking anthracyclines. Scientists have been working to develop newer antitumor antibiotics that cause fewer negative side effects on the healthy cells in the body.

While there are a few newer antitumor antibiotics that are approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for use, there are several in phase III clinical trials. These clinical trials are a critical final step to complete before the FDA authorizes the use of these medications for the general public.

  • Pirarubicin: A phase III clinical trial antitumor antibiotic that has shown 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 leukemias.
  • Zorubicin: Another phase III clinical trial antitumor antibiotic, this antitumor antibiotic has shown strong positive effects with breast cancer and acute leukemias.
  • Pixantrone: This phase III clinical trial antitumor antibiotic is being evaluated for use with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.


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

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

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

In general, individuals who are diagnosed with cancer usually have an oncologist, or a physician specializing in treating different types of cancer. Another way an oncologist can minimize the negative side effects of antitumor antibiotics might include collaborating with a cardio-oncologist.

A cardio-oncologist is a newer physician specialty within cardiovascular medicine that can provide valuable guidance on what oncology therapies can cause adverse cardiovascular side effects and ways to prevent those side effects. The collaboration between an oncologist and a cardio-oncologist, although new, can provide enhanced quality of care for individuals affects by cancer and open the possibility to newer 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 newer antitumor antibiotics that may be less harsh on the cardiovascular system to be prescribed. If you are taking antitumor antibiotics, discuss your options with your healthcare provider to find the best treament option for you.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Health. Antitumor antibiotics.

  2. Campia U, Moslehi JJ, Amiri-Kordestani L, et al. Cardio-oncology: vascular and metabolic perspectives: a scientific statement from the American Heart AssociationCirculation. 2019;139(13).

  3. American Cancer Society. How chemotherapy drugs work.

  4. Jeswani G, Paul SD. Recent advances in the delivery of chemotherapeutic agents. In: Nano- and Microscale Drug Delivery Systems. Elsevier; 2017:281-298.

By Pamela Assid, DNP, RN
Pamela Assid, DNP, RN, is a board-certified nursing specialist with over 25 years of expertise in emergency, pediatric, and leadership roles.