Targeted Therapy for Nasopharyngeal Cancer

As researchers have learned more about the changes in cells that cause cancer, they have been able to develop newer drugs that specifically target these changes. These targeted drugs work differently from standard chemotherapy (chemo) drugs. They may work in some instances when chemo drugs do not, or they may help chemo drugs work better. Targeted drugs also often have different (and less severe) side effects.

Cetuximab (Erbitux®)

Cetuximab is a monoclonal antibody (a man-made version of an immune system protein) that targets the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). EGFR is a protein found on the surface of cells. It normally receives signals telling the cells to grow and divide. Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) cells sometimes have more than normal amounts of EGFR, which can help them grow faster. By blocking EGFR, cetuximab may slow or stop this growth.

The exact role of cetuximab in treating NPC is still being studied. It is most often used along with chemo and/or radiation in cases where the cancer has come back or continues to grow after initial chemo.

Cetuximab is given by IV infusion, usually once a week. Common side effects include:

  • Skin problems, such as an acne-like rash on the face and chest during treatment, which in some cases can lead to infections.
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea

A rare but serious side effect of cetuximab is an allergic reaction during the first infusion, which could cause breathing problems and low blood pressure. You may be given medicine before treatment to help prevent this.

For information about managing skin problems from targeted therapy, see our document Targeted Therapy.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: January 15, 2015 Last Revised: August 8, 2016

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