Targeted Therapy for Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers

As researchers have learned more about the changes in cells that cause cancer, they've been able to develop newer drugs that specifically target these changes. Targeted drugs work differently from standard chemo drugs. They may work in some cases when chemo doesn’t. They also tend to have different (and less severe) side effects. So they may be useful in treating people who cannot tolerate chemo side effects.

Cetuximab (Erbitux®) is a monoclonal antibody, which is a man-made version of an immune system protein. It targets epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a protein on the surface of certain cells that helps them grow and divide. Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer cells often have more than normal amounts of EGFR. By blocking EGFR, cetuximab can slow or stop cancer cell growth.

Cetuximab may be combined with radiation therapy for some earlier stage cancers. For more advanced cancers, such as those that have spread or come back after treatment, it may be combined with chemo drugs like cisplatin and 5FU, or it may be used by itself.

Cetuximab is given by infusion into a vein (IV), usually once a week. A rare but serious side effect of cetuximab is an allergic reaction during the first infusion, which could cause problems with breathing and low blood pressure. You will be given medicine before treatment to help prevent this.

Many people develop skin problems such as an acne-like rash on the face and chest during treatment, which in some cases can lead to infections. Other side effects might include headache, tiredness, fever, nausea, and diarrhea.

Talk to your doctor about the side effects you should watch for and what can be done to help prevent or treat them.

Studies of other targeted therapy drugs to treat laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers are going on now.

To learn more about this cancer treatment see Targeted Therapy.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer: Treatment Options. 12/2016. Accessed at on November 8, 2017.

Bonner J, Giralt J, Harari P, et al. Cetuximab and Radiotherapy in Laryngeal Preservation for Cancers of the Larynx and Hypopharynx: A Secondary Analysis of a Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2016;142(9):842-849.

National Cancer Institute. Laryngeal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. September 27, 2017. Accessed at on November 8, 2017.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. Head and Neck Cancers. Version 2.2017 -- May 8, 2017. 

Steuer CE, El-Deiry M, Parks JR, Higgins KA, Saba NF. An update on larynx cancer. CA Cancer J Clin. 2017;67(1):31-50. 

Last Revised: November 27, 2017

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