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Targeted Drug Therapy for Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Targeted drug therapy is the use of medicines that target or are directed at proteins on cancer cells that help them grow, spread, and live longer. Targeted drug therapy can be used to treat nasopharyngeal cancers by destroying cancer cells or slowing their growth. Many of these drugs can be taken as pills and their side effects are different from chemotherapy (sometimes less severe) .

Some targeted drugs, for example, monoclonal antibodies, work in more than one way to control cancer cells and may also be considered immunotherapy because they boost the immune system.

Targeting cancer cells with EGFR changes

Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is a protein that helps cancer cells grow. One drug that targets EGFR can be used to treat some nasopharyngeal cancers.

Cetuximab for nasopharyngeal cancers

Cetuximab (Erbitux) is a monoclonal antibody (a man-made version of an immune system protein). It targets EGFR which is a protein found on the surface of certain cancer cells that helps them grow and divide. Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) cells sometimes have higher than normal amounts of EGFR. By blocking EGFR, cetuximab can help slow or stop cancer cell growth.

The exact role of cetuximab in treating NPC is still being studied. It might be used along with chemo in cases where the cancer has spread, come back, or continued to grow after initial treatment with chemo.

Cetuximab is given by IV infusion, either once a week or every other week.

Possible side effects of targeted drug therapy

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 editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Ma BBY, Kam MKM, Leung SF, et al. A phase II study of concurrent cetuximab-cisplatin and intensity-modulated radiotherapy in locoregionally advanced nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Ann Oncol. 2012;23(5):1287-1292. doi:10.1093/annonc/mdr401.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. Head and Neck Cancers, Version 3.2021 – April 27, 2021. Accessed at on May 20, 2021.

Last Revised: August 1, 2022

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