Stomach Cancer

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Treating Stomach Cancer TOPICS

Targeted therapies for stomach cancer

Chemotherapy (chemo) drugs target cells that divide rapidly, which is why they often work against cancer cells. But there are other aspects of cancer cells that make them different from normal cells. In recent years, researchers have developed new drugs to try to target these differences. Targeted drugs may work in some cases when standard chemo drugs don’t. They also tend to have fewer severe side effects than standard chemo drugs.


About 1 out of 5 of stomach cancers has too much of a growth-promoting protein called HER2/neu (or just HER2) on the surface of the cancer cells. Tumors with increased levels of HER2 are called HER2-positive.

Trastuzumab (Herceptin) is a monoclonal antibody, a man-made version of a very specific immune system protein, which targets the HER2 protein. Giving trastuzumab with chemo can help some patients with advanced, HER2-positive stomach cancer live longer than giving chemo alone.

This drug only works if the cancer cells have too much HER2, so samples of the patient’s tumor must be tested to look for HER2 before starting treatment (see “How is stomach cancer diagnosed?”). It is not used in people whose cancer is HER2-negative.

Trastuzumab is injected into a vein (IV). For stomach cancer it is given once every 2 or 3 weeks along with chemo. The best length of time to give it is not yet known.

The side effects of trastuzumab tend to be relatively mild. They can include fever and chills, weakness, nausea, vomiting, cough, diarrhea, and headache. These side effects occur less often after the first dose. This drug can also rarely lead to heart damage. The risk of heart damage is increased if trastuzumab is given with certain chemo drugs called anthracyclines, such as epirubicin (Ellence) or doxorubicin (Adriamycin).

Other targeted drugs

Other targeted therapy drugs are being tested against stomach cancer. Some of these also focus on the HER2 protein, while others have different targets. Some of these drugs are discussed in more detail in the section “What’s new in stomach cancer research and treatment?

You can read more about targeted therapy in our document Targeted Therapy.

Last Medical Review: 02/15/2013
Last Revised: 02/11/2014