Targeted therapy for head and neck cancer

Targeted (biological) therapies are drugs that mimic substances that occur naturally in the body to destroy cancer cells. They work by changing the way that cells interact with or signal to each other.

Cetuximab (Erbitux®) is the most commonly used targeted therapy to treat head and neck cancer. It’s given as a drip (infusion) into a vein.

It may be used:

  • in combination with radiotherapy for people who aren’t fit enough to cope with the side effects of chemoradiation
  • as part of a clinical trial in combination with chemoradiation
  • with palliative chemotherapy.

How cetuximab works

Most squamous cell cancers of the head and neck have proteins called epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFRs) on their surface. When chemical messengers in the body (called growth factors) attach to these receptors, it stimulates the cancer to grow.

Cetuximab stops the growth factors from attaching to receptors on the cancer and so may stop it growing. It may also make the cancer more sensitive to the effects of radiotherapy.

Side effects

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

The most common side effect is a skin rash. It usually starts within two weeks of having the first treatment but goes away once treatment is over. You’ll be given advice on how to look after your skin while you’re having cetuximab.