Targeted Drug 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 target these changes. These targeted drugs work differently from standard chemotherapy (chemo) drugs. They may work in some cases when chemo drugs don't, or they may help chemo drugs work better. Targeted drugs also often have different (and often 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's most often used along with chemo and/or radiation in cases where the cancer has spread, come back, or continued to grow after initial chemo.

Cetuximab is given by IV infusion, either once a week or every other week. Common side effects include:

  • Skin problems, such as an itchy, acne-like rash on the face and chest, which can lead to infections
  • Headache
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss

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 will be given medicine before treatment to help prevent this.

More information about targeted therapy

To learn more about how targeted drugs are used to treat cancer, see Targeted Cancer Therapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

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.

Eli Lilly and Company, ImClone LLC. Package insert: ERBITUX - cetuximab solution. October 2016. Accessed at on April 23, 2018.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®), Head and Neck Cancers, Version I.2018 -- February 15, 2018. Accessed at on April 23, 2018.

Last Revised: April 7, 2021

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.