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Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Medication

  • Author: Sanjay Vinjamaram, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Emmanuel C Besa, MD  more...
Updated: Jul 06, 2016

Medication Summary

Multiple chemotherapeutic agents are active against non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and can be used alone or in combination, depending on the histology and stage of the disease and whether the patient can tolerate chemotherapy. In addition, several biological therapies are currently available for these patients, including interferons, rituximab, and radiolabeled antibodies (the newest biological therapy).

Alkylating agents impair cell function by forming covalent bonds with DNA, ribonucleic acid (RNA), and proteins. These agents are not cell cycle phase–specific and are used for hematologic and nonhematologic malignancies.

Anthracycline antibiotics bind to nucleic acids by intercalation with base pairs of the DNA double helix, interfering with the DNA synthesis. They cause inhibition of DNA topoisomerases I and II.

Vinca alkaloids inhibit microtubule assembly, causing metaphase arrest in dividing cells. Vinca alkaloids are also cell cycle phase–specific at the M and S phase.

Glucocorticoids cause lysis of lymphoid cells, which led to their use against acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), multiple myeloma, and NHL. These agents are also used as adjunctive antiemetic agents, to decrease vasogenic edema associated with tumors, and as prophylactic medication to prevent hypersensitivity reactions associated with some chemotherapeutic drugs.

Antimetabolites cause tumor cell death by inhibiting enzymes that are important in DNA synthesis.

Biological response modulators control the response of the patient's immune system to tumor cells, infecting organisms, or both.


Cytotoxic agents

Class Summary

These agents inhibit cell growth and proliferation.

Chlorambucil (Leukeran)


Chlorambucil alkylates and cross-links strands of DNA, inhibiting DNA replication and RNA transcription. It is used mainly to treat indolent lymphomas, particularly chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia. This agent may be preferable for elderly patients with serious comorbid medical problems who require treatment for lymphoma. It is well absorbed orally.

Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan)


Cyclophosphamide is chemically related to nitrogen mustards. As an alkylating agent, the mechanism of action of the active metabolites may involve cross-linking of DNA, which may interfere with growth of normal and neoplastic cells. This agent can be used alone but is mostly used as a component of multiple combination chemotherapy regimens.

Doxorubicin (Adriamycin)


An anthracycline antibiotic that can intercalate with DNA, doxorubicin affects many of the functions of DNA, including synthesis. It forms DNA-cleavable complexes by interaction with topoisomerase II, which is responsible for the cytocidal activity of the drug. Doxorubicin is administered IV and distributes widely into bodily tissues, including the heart, kidneys, lungs, liver, and spleen. It does not cross the blood-brain barrier and is excreted primarily in bile. It forms an important part of multiple chemotherapeutic regimens for lymphomas, including cyclophosphamide, hydroxydaunomycin (doxorubicin), vincristine (Oncovin), and prednisone (CHOP).

Vincristine (Oncovin)


The mechanism of action of vincristine is uncertain. It may involve a decrease in reticuloendothelial cell function or an increase in platelet production; however, neither of these mechanisms fully explains the effect in thrombocytopenic purpura and hemolytic-uremic syndrome. Vincristine is used in hematologic and nonhematologic malignancies. It is a component of CHOP and other regimens for lymphoma.

Fludarabine (Fludara)


Fludarabine is a purine analogue that interferes with DNA synthesis by inhibiting ribonucleotide reductase. It is also incorporated into RNA, causing inhibition of RNA and protein synthesis; however, its primary effect may result from activation of apoptosis.

Pralatrexate (Folotyn)


This agent is a folate inhibitor. It is indicated for relapsed or refractory peripheral T-cell lymphoma.

Nelarabine (Arranon)


Nelarabine is a prodrug of the deoxyguanosine analogue 9-beta-D-arabinofuranosylguanine (ara-G). It is converted to the active 5'-triphosphate, ara-GTP, a T-cell–selective nucleoside analog. Leukemic blast cells accumulate ara-GTP. This allows for incorporation into DNA, leading to inhibition of DNA synthesis and cell death.

Etoposide (Toposar)


Etoposide is a glycosidic derivative of podophyllotoxin that exerts its cytotoxic effect through stabilization of the normally transient covalent intermediates formed between DNA substrate and topoisomerase II, leading to single- and double-strand DNA breaks. This causes cell proliferation to arrest in the late S or early G2 portion of the cell cycle.

Mitoxantrone (Novantrone)


Mitoxantrone inhibits cell proliferation by intercalating DNA and inhibiting topoisomerase II.



Cytarabine is converted intracellularly to the active compound cytarabine-5'-triphosphate, which inhibits DNA polymerase. It is cell cycle S phase specific and it blocks the progression from the G1 to the S phase, in turn killing cells that undergo DNA synthesis in the S phase of the cell proliferation cycle.

Bendamustine (Treanda)


Bendamustine is an alkylating agent that is a bifunctional mechlorethamine derivative. It forms covalent bonds with electron-rich nucleophilic moieties that can lead to cell death. It is active against both quiescent and dividing cells and is indicated for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).



Carboplatin is an analog of cisplatin. This is a heavy metal coordination complex that exerts its cytotoxic effect by platination of DNA, a mechanism analogous to alkylation, leading to interstrand and intrastrand DNA cross-links and inhibition of DNA replication. It binds to protein and other compounds containing the SH group. Cytotoxicity can occur at any stage of the cell cycle, but the cell is most vulnerable to action of these drugs in the G1 and S phases. It has same efficacy as cisplatin, but with a better toxicity profile. The main advantages over cisplatin include less nephrotoxicity and ototoxicity, the lack of a need for extensive prehydration, and a smaller likelihood of inducing nausea and vomiting; however, it is more likely to induce myelotoxicity.



Cisplatin is a platinum-containing compound that exerts its antineoplastic effect by covalently binding to DNA, with preferential binding to the N-7 position of guanine and adenosine. It can react with 2 different sites on DNA to cause cross-links. The platinum complex also can bind to the nucleus and to cytoplasmic protein. A bifunctional alkylating agent, once cisplatin is activated to the aquated form in the cell, it binds to DNA, resulting in interstrand and intrastrand cross-linking and denaturation of the double helix.



Gemcitabine is a cytidine analog. It is metabolized intracellularly to an active nucleotide. It inhibits ribonucleotide reductase and competes with deoxycytidine triphosphate for incorporation into DNA. It is cell-cycle specific for the S phase. Gemcitabine is indicated as first-line treatment for locally advanced (nonresectable stage II or stage III) or metastatic (stage IV) pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

Denileukin Diftitox (Ontak)


This product was discontinued in January 2014. Denileukin diftitox is a molecule in which the diphtheria toxin and the receptor-binding domain of human interleukin 2 (IL-2) are fused. This fusion protein selectively delivers the cytotoxic activity of diphtheria toxin to targeted cells. It is used only in T-cell lymphoma in which malignant cells express the CD25 component of the IL-2 receptor. The drug binds to the IL-2 receptor (measured by CD25), is internalized by receptor-mediated endocytosis, and then inhibits protein synthesis by translocation of the active portion of diphtheria toxin into the cytosol. This, in turn, causes cell death.



This agent is composed of a group of glycopeptides extracted from Streptomyces species. Each molecule has a planar end and an amine end; different glycopeptides of the group differ in their terminal amine moieties. The planar end intercalates with DNA, while the amine end facilitates oxidation of bound ferrous ions to ferric ions, thereby generating free radicals, which subsequently cleave DNA, acting specifically at purine-G-C-pyrimidine sequences.


Antineoplastic Agents, Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors

Class Summary

These agents can induce the termination of cell growth, which, in turn, leads to cell death. Agents include vorinostat and romidepsin.

Vorinostat (Zolinza)


Vorinostat is a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor. HDAC inhibition results in hypoacetylation of core nucleosomal histones, it condenses the chromatin structure, and it represses gene transcription. It is indicated for the treatment of progressive, persistent, or recurrent cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.

Romidepsin (Istodax)


This agent inhibits HDAC, which results in the accumulation of acetyl groups. This leads to alterations in chromatin structure and transcription factor activation, causing the termination of cell growth, which, in turn, leads to cell death. Indicated for CTCL and PTCL in patients who have received at least 1 prior therapy.

Belinostat (Beleodaq)


Belinostat is a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor. HDACs catalyze the removal of acetyl groups from the lysine residues of histones and some nonhistone proteins. Inhibiting this action induces cell cycle arrest and/or apoptosis.


Colony-Stimulating Factor Growth Factors

Class Summary

These agents can induce an increase in reticulocyte counts, with a subsequent increase in hematocrit and hemoglobin levels.

Epoetin alfa (Epogen, Procrit)


This agent is a purified glycoprotein produced from mammalian cells modified with gene coding for human erythropoietin (EPO). Its amino acid sequence is identical to that of endogenous EPO. The biological activity of epoetin alfa mimics human urinary EPO, which stimulates division and differentiation of committed erythroid progenitor cells and induces the release of reticulocytes from bone marrow into the blood stream.

Darbepoetin alfa (Aranesp)


This is an erythropoiesis-stimulating protein closely related to EPO, a primary growth factor produced in the kidney that stimulates the development of erythroid progenitor cells. Its mechanism of action is similar to that of endogenous EPO, which interacts with stem cells to increase red blood cell production. It differs from epoetin alfa (recombinant human EPO) in that it contains 5 N-linked oligosaccharide chains, whereas epoetin alfa contains 3. Darbepoetin alfa has a longer half-life than epoetin alfa and can be administered weekly or biweekly.

Filgrastim (Neupogen)


Filgrastim is a recombinant methionyl human granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (r-metHuG-CSF) consisting of a 175–amino acid protein with a molecular weight of 18,800 d. It is produced by Escherichia coli bacteria into which the human G-CSF gene is inserted. This protein has an amino acid sequence identical to the natural sequence predicted from human DNA sequence analysis, except for the addition of an N-terminal methionine necessary for expression in E coli. Because it is produced in E coli, the product is nonglycosylated and thus differs from G-CSF isolated from human cells.

Pegfilgrastim (Neulasta)


Pegfilgrastim is a long-acting filgrastim created by the covalent conjugate of recombinant granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (ie, filgrastim) and monomethoxypolyethylene glycol. As with filgrastim, it acts on hematopoietic cells by binding to specific cell surface receptors, thereby activating and stimulating the production, maturation, migration, and cytotoxicity of neutrophils.


Monoclonal Antibodies

Class Summary

The agents in this class target specific antigens in carcinoma cells and induce cytotoxicity.

Rituximab (Rituxan)


Rituximab is a genetically engineered chimeric murine/human monoclonal antibody directed against the CD20 antigen found on the surface of normal and malignant B lymphocytes. The antibody is an immunoglobulin G1 (IgG1) kappa immunoglobulin containing murine light- and heavy-chain variable region sequences and human constant region sequences.

Ibritumomab tiuxetan (Zevalin)


A murine monoclonal antibody that targets the CD20 antigen, ibritumomab tiuxetan is chelated to the radioisotopes indium-111 or yttrium-90. It is used in conjunction with rituximab to treat B-cell NHL or rituximab-refractory follicular NHL. The regimen consists of 2 low doses of rituximab, an imaging dose, 2-3 whole body scans, and a therapeutic dose, all of which are delivered in an outpatient setting over 8 days.

Tositumomab and iodine I131 (BEXXAR)


Tositumomab is a murine IgG2a lambda monoclonal antibody directed against the CD20 antigen, which is found on the surface of normal and malignant B lymphocytes. The radiolabeled tositumomab (ie, iodine I131 tositumomab) is administered following the nonradiotherapeutic version to direct treatment precisely to the malignancy. Possible mechanisms of action include apoptosis, complement-dependent cytotoxicity, antibody-dependent cytotoxicity, and ionizing radiation. Indicated for CD20-positive non-Hodgkin lymphoma that has recurred following chemotherapy and is refractory to rituximab.

Alemtuzumab (Campath)


Alemtuzumab is a monoclonal antibody against CD52, an antigen found on B cells, T cells, and almost all chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells. It binds to the CD52 receptor of the lymphocytes, which slows the proliferation of leukocytes.

Ofatumumab (Arzerra)


Ofatumumab is an anti-CD20 human monoclonal antibody that inhibits B-cell activation in early stages. It is indicated for chronic lymphocytic leukemia refractory to fludarabine and alemtuzumab.

Idelalisib (Zydelig)


Idelalisib is a phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K) delta inhibitor. Idelalisib induces apoptosis and inhibits proliferation in cell lines derived from malignant B cells and in primary tumor cells; also inhibits several cell- signaling pathways, including B cell receptor (BCR) signaling and the CXCR4 and CXCR5 signaling, which are involved in trafficking and homing of B cells to the lymph nodes and bone marrow. It gained accelerated approval by the FDA (ie, confirmatory clinical trials in progress) in July 2014 for relapsed follicular B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (FL) and relapsed small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL) in patients who have received at least 2 prior systemic therapies.


Antineoplastic Agents, mTOR Kinase Inhibitors

Class Summary

Agents in this class halt the cell cycle at the G1 phase in tumor cells.

Temsirolimus (Torisel)


Temsirolimus is a water-soluble ester of sirolimus. It binds with high affinity to immunophilin FKBP (FK506-binding protein). This complex inhibits mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) kinase, a key protein in cells that regulate the gene translation responsible for cell-cycle regulation. mTOR also reduces the cell growth factors (eg, vascular endothelial growth factor) involved in new blood vessel development.


Antineoplastic Agents, Proteasome Inhibitors

Class Summary

Agents in this class may cause cell-cycle arrest and apoptosis.

Bortezomib (Velcade)


This is the first drug approved of the anticancer agents known as proteasome inhibitors. The proteasome pathway is an enzyme complex existing in all cells. This complex degrades ubiquitinated proteins that control the cell cycle and cellular processes and maintains cellular homeostasis. Reversible proteasome inhibition disrupts the pathways supporting cell growth, thus decreases cancer cell survival.



Class Summary

These drugs regulate key events responsible for immune reactions.

Interferon alfa-2a (Roferon-A) or alfa-2b (Intron A)


These drugs regulate key events responsible for immune reactions.



Class Summary

These drugs have anti-inflammatory properties and cause profound and varied metabolic effects. Corticosteroids modify the body's immune response to diverse stimuli.

Dexamethasone (Decadron, AK-Dex, Alba-Dex, Baldex)


A component of the m-BACOD (methotrexate, bleomycin, doxorubicin [Adriamycin], cyclophosphamide, Oncovin, and dexamethasone) regimen, dexamethasone is a glucocorticoid that acts as an immunosuppressant by stimulating the synthesis of enzymes needed to decrease the inflammatory response. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent by inhibiting the recruitment of leukocytes and monocyte-macrophages into affected areas via inhibition of chemotactic factors and factors that increase capillary permeability.

Dexamethasone is readily absorbed via the GI tract and metabolized in the liver. Inactive metabolites are excreted via the kidneys. Most of the adverse effects of corticosteroids are dose dependent or duration dependent.

Prednisone (Deltasone, Orasone, Meticorten)


A component of several regimens, such as CHOP, prednisone is a glucocorticoid that acts as an immunosuppressant by stimulating the synthesis of enzymes needed to decrease the inflammatory response. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent by inhibiting the recruitment of leukocytes and monocyte-macrophages into affected areas via inhibition of chemotactic factors and factors that increase capillary permeability.

Prednisone is readily absorbed via the GI tract and metabolized in the liver. Inactive metabolites are excreted via the kidneys. Most of the adverse effects of corticosteroids are dose dependent or duration dependent.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Sanjay Vinjamaram, MD, MPH Physician in Hematology/Oncology, Essentia/Innovis Health Cancer Center

Sanjay Vinjamaram, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, Sigma Xi, American Society for Cell Biology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Dolores A Estrada-Garcia, MD Consulting Staff in Hematology-Oncology, Cancer Care Specialists of Central Illinois

Dolores A Estrada-Garcia, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Society of Hematology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco J Hernandez-Ilizaliturri, MD Associate Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine, Assistant Professor of Immunology, Department of Immunology, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, University of Buffalo State University of New York School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Francisco J Hernandez-Ilizaliturri, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Cancer Research, American Society of Hematology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Emmanuel C Besa, MD Professor Emeritus, Department of Medicine, Division of Hematologic Malignancies and Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation, Kimmel Cancer Center, Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University

Emmanuel C Besa, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Cancer Education, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American College of Clinical Pharmacology, American Federation for Medical Research, American Society of Hematology, New York Academy of Sciences

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Koyamangalath Krishnan, MD, FRCP, FACP Paul Dishner Endowed Chair of Excellence in Medicine, Professor of Medicine and Chief of Hematology-Oncology, James H Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University

Koyamangalath Krishnan, MD, FRCP, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, American Society of Hematology, and Royal College of Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Lakshmi Rajdev, MD Site Director, Jacobi Medical Center; Assistant Professor, Department of Radiation Oncology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Joseph A Sparano, MD Professor of Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Cancer Center; Program Director, Director of Breast Medical Oncology, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Oncology, Montefiore Medical Center

Joseph A Sparano, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Cancer Research, American College of Physicians, and American Society of Hematology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

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Posteroanterior (PA) chest radiograph in a man with thoracic non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) shows mediastinal widening due to grossly enlarged right paratracheal and left paratracheal nodes.
Posteroanterior (PA) chest radiograph in a 16-year-old male adolescent with thoracic non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) shows subtle enlargement of the lower paratracheal lymph nodes.
Nonenhanced CT scan through the mediastinum shows multiple enlarged lymph nodes in the prevascular space, in the right and left paratracheal region. Nodes in the left paratracheal region cause the trachea to be indented and narrowed on the left side. Note the small, bilateral pleural effusion
Nonenhanced CT scan through the mediastinum at the level of the carina shows enlarged tracheobronchial and subcarinal nodes. Note the small bilateral pleural effusion.
Contrast-enhanced axial CT scan in a child shows hypoattenuating, enlarged, subcarinal lymph nodes with splaying of the tracheal bifurcation.
Posteroanterior (PA) chest radiograph shows a large mass in the right parahilar region extending into the right upper and middle zones, with silhouetting of the right pulmonary artery. Smaller mass is seen in the periphery of the right lower zone. The masses did not respond to a trial of antibiotics. Core-needle biopsy of the larger lesion revealed NHL deposits in the lung.
Lateral image shows a large mass in the anterior aspect of the right upper lobe of the lung.
Posterior bone scan shows no abnormally increased uptake in the thoracic vertebrae. Image shows an unusual pattern of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) of the upper thoracic vertebra.
This 28-year-old man was being evaluated for fever of unknown origin. Gallium-67 study shows extensive uptake in the mediastinal lymph nodes due to non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
T1-weighted coronal MRI of the thorax in a 55-year-old woman with lower dorsal pain. Note the signal-intensity changes in the body of D12; these are associated with a right-sided, large, paravertebral soft-tissue mass involving the psoas muscle. Biopsy confirmed non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
T1-weighted coronal MRI of the thorax in a 55-year-old woman with lower dorsal pain (same patient as in the previous image). Note the signal-intensity changes in the body of D12; these are associated with a right-sided, large, paravertebral soft-tissue mass involving the psoas muscle. Biopsy confirmed non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
Positron emission tomography (PET) CT in an 80-year-old woman with diffuse, large B-cell NHL of the skin and subcutaneous tissues that recently transformed from previous low-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). PET shows high level of uptake in the anterior subcutaneous nodule in the chest (white arrows). CT scan of similar nodules (arrowheads) on the anterior left chest does not show PET uptake; these may represent regions of lower-grade NHL. PET image of posterior lesions shows only mild uptake (gray arrow).
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma of the terminal ileum. Note the doughnut sign, ie, intraluminal contrast material surrounded by a grossly thickened bowel wall. This appearance is highly suggestive of small noncleaved cell lymphoma (Burkitt type).
Computed tomography of the throat in highly-malignant non-hodgkin lymphoma present as lymph node swelling in a child (transverse section with contrast). DE: Computertomographie des Halses bei einem hoch-malignen Non-Hodgkin
Malignant lymphoma high grade_B_cell
Ultrasound throat lymphadenopathy non-hodgkin-lymphoma
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