Molecular targets of tyrosine kinase inhibitors in thyroid cancer

Semin Cancer Biol. 2022 Feb;79:180-196. doi: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2020.11.013. Epub 2020 Nov 26.


Thyroid cancer (TC) is the eighth most frequently diagnosed cancer worldwide with a rising incidence in the past 20 years. Surgery is the primary strategy of therapy for patients with medullary TC (MTC) and differentiated TC (DTC). In DTC patients, radioactive iodine (RAI) is administered after thyroidectomy. Neck ultrasound, basal and thyroid-stimulating hormone-stimulated thyroglobulin are generally performed every three to six months for the first year, with subsequent intervals depending on initial risk assessment, for the detection of possible persistent/recurrent disease during the follow up. Distant metastases are present at the diagnosis in ∼5 % of DTC patients; up to 15 % of patients have recurrences during the follow up, with a survival reduction (70 %-50 %) at 10-year. During tumor progression, the iodide uptake capability of DTC cancer cells can be lost, making them refractory to RAI, with a negative impact on the prognosis. Significant advances have been done recently in our understanding of the molecular pathways implicated in the progression of TCs. Several drugs have been developed, which inhibit signaling kinases or oncogenic kinases (BRAFV600E, RET/PTC), such as those associated with Platelet-Derived Growth Factor Receptor and Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor Receptor. Tyrosine kinase receptors are involved in cancer cell proliferation, angiogenesis, and lymphangiogenesis. Several tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) are emerging as new treatments for DTC, MTC and anaplastic TC (ATC), and can induce a clinical response and stabilize the disease. Lenvatinib and sorafenib reached the approval for RAI-refractory DTC, whereas cabozantinib and vandetanib for MTC. These TKIs extend median progression-free survival, but do not increase the overall survival. Severe side effects and drug resistance can develop in TC patients treated with TKIs. Additional studies are needed to identify a potential effective targeted therapy for aggressive TCs, according to their molecular characterization.

Keywords: Anaplastic thyroid cancer; Follicular thyroid cancer; Medullary thyroid cancer; Papillary thyroid cancer; Tyrosine kinase inhibitors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma, Follicular / diagnosis
  • Adenocarcinoma, Follicular / pathology
  • Adenocarcinoma, Follicular / therapy*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Carcinoma, Medullary / congenital*
  • Carcinoma, Medullary / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma, Medullary / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Medullary / therapy
  • Humans
  • Iodine Radioisotopes / therapeutic use
  • Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 2a / diagnosis
  • Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 2a / pathology
  • Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 2a / therapy*
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / diagnosis
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / pathology
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / therapy*
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic / diagnosis
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic / pathology
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic / therapy*
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / pathology
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Thyroidectomy*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Iodine Radioisotopes
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases

Supplementary concepts

  • Familial medullary thyroid carcinoma