Normal, healthy cells divide and grow in a well-established pattern. When normal cells divide, an identical copy is produced. The body only makes the number of normal cells that it needs at any given time. As each normal cell matures, it loses its ability to reproduce. Normal cells are also preprogrammed to die at a specific time.
Cancer cells, on the other hand, reproduce uncontrollably and grow in unpredictable ways. They invade surrounding tissue and can travel in blood or lymph to lodge in other parts of the body.
All chemotherapy drugs work in some way to interfere with the ability of the cancer cells to live, divide, and multiply. Some of the types of drugs used to treat leukemia are:
• Alkylating agents. All cells use building blocks (DNA and RNA) to make exact copies of themselves. Alkylating agents poison cancer cells by interacting with DNA to prevent cell reproduction.
• Antimetabolites. These drugs starve cancer cells by replacing essential cell nutrients that are necessary during the synthesis (growth in preparation for cell division) phase of the cell cycle.
• Antibiotics. This type of drug prevents cell growth by blocking reproduction, weakening the membrane of the cell (outer wall), or interfering with certain cell enzymes.
• Alkaloids. These drugs, derived from plants, interrupt cell division through a variety of mechanisms, including interfering with the DNA and specific enzyme activities. They also disrupt the membrane (outer wall) of the cell to cause cell damage or cell death.
• Hormones. These drugs create a hostile environment that slows cell growth.
• Enzymes. These drugs interfere with tumor cells' ability to reproduce by depriving the cell of specific proteins necessary for cell growth and division.
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