Targeted therapy for head and neck cancer

Targeted therapies interfere with the way cells grow and divide. They are sometimes known as biological therapies. They can be used to:

  • stimulate the immune system
  • control the growth of cancer cells
  • improve side effects of treatment.

The most commonly used targeted therapy to treat head and neck cancers is cetuximab (Erbitux®). It belongs to a group of cancer drugs known as monoclonal antibodies. They work by targeting specific proteins (receptors) on the surface of cells. Cetuximab is given as a drip (infusion) into a vein.

Targeted therapies may be used to treat some head and neck cancers:

How cetuximab works

Most squamous cell cancers of the head and neck have proteins called epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFRs) on their surface. The body makes chemical messengers, called growth factors. These attach to the receptors on the cancer. This stimulates the cancer to grow and divide.

Cetuximab stops the growth factors from attaching to receptors on the cancer. This can stop the receptors from stimulating the cancer cells to divide and grow. It may also make the cancer more sensitive to the effects of radiotherapy.

Side effects of cetuximab

The side effects of cetuximab are generally mild. Some people have flu-like symptoms when the infusion is being given, such as a headache, fever, chills or dizziness. Your nurse will give you medication before the infusion to reduce the risk of this happening.

The most common side effect is a skin rash. It usually starts within 2 weeks of having the first treatment but goes away when treatment finishes. Your nurse will give you advice on how to look after your skin while you are having cetuximab.

How targeted therapies work

This animation shows how targeted therapies work and what effect they have on the body.

About our cancer information videos

How targeted therapies work

This animation shows how targeted therapies work and what effect they have on the body.

About our cancer information videos

Back to Targeted (biological) therapies for head and neck cancer

Monoclonal antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies can attach themselves to cancer cells to prevent them from growing.