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What are antimetabolites?

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine

Antimetabolites…the word sounds like the newest boy band to hit the top of the charts, but this word is actually used to describe a group of powerful drugs that are commonly used to treat cancer or other conditions (like psoriasis) associated with rapid, uncontrolled cell growth.

Antimetabolites are able to stop or significantly slow down cell growth and cell division. Researchers think that the antimetabolite is able to stealthily convince the body that it’s a building block of DNA, so the cell takes it up and adds it to the double helix. However, when it comes time to actually divide or to get instructions to grow, the antimetabolite trips up the cell and it ends up not being able to grow or reproduce.


Examples of antimetabolites (there are many different ones) include methotrexate, cytarabine, and mercaptopurine, or 6-MP. 


If your doc has put you on an antimetabolite to treat cancer or another disease (like psoriasis), make sure you understand why you are taking it and what the side effects may be. Ask him or her any questions you have about being treated with antimetabolites, if there are other options, and what side effects you might experience. And if you’re unsure, get a second opinion. If you’re going to be taking something for more than a few days, we docs always recommend getting a second opinion.

Antimetabolites are a group of drugs that interfere with the growth of abnormal cells. If left alone, these abnormal cells may become cancerous. Antimetabolites look and act similar to the nutrients cancer cells feed on. Cancerous cells absorb antimetabolites, which affect the growth and division of cancerous cells. Eventually, the cancer cells die. Antimetabolites work like chemotherapy agents.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.