Targeted Therapy for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer

As researchers have learned more about the changes in cells that cause cancer, they have developed newer drugs that specifically target these changes. Targeted drugs work differently from standard chemotherapy (chemo) drugs. They often have different (and less severe) side effects.

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

Cetuximab may be combined with radiation therapy for some earlier stage cancers. For more advanced cancers, it may be combined with standard chemo drugs such as cisplatin, 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 may 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 may include headache, tiredness, fever, and diarrhea.

Several other drugs that target EGFR are now being studied as well, some of which are already being used to treat other cancers. (See What’s New in Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer Research and Treatment?)

More information on targeted therapy can be found in 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: July 16, 2014 Last Revised: August 8, 2016

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