Targeted Therapy for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer

As researchers have learned more about the changes in cells that cause oral cavity and oropharyngeal 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 often less severe) side effects.

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

Side effects of targeted therapy

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. Cetuximab can make your skin very sensitive to the sun, so you'll need to protect your skin while getting treatment and for at least months after treatment. Other side effects may include headache, tiredness, fever, and diarrhea.

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.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®), Head and Neck Cancers, Version I.2018 -- February 15, 2018. Accessed at on February 28, 2018.

US National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Cetuximab Injection. 8/15/2015. Accessed at on February 28, 2018.

Last Revised: August 8, 2016

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