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Targeted Therapy for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer

What is targeted drug therapy?

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 oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers by destroying cancer cells or slowing their growth. Their side effects are different from chemotherapy (sometimes less severe) and many are taken as a pill.

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.

Drug that targets cancer cells with EGFR changes

Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is a protein that helps cancer cells grow. Drugs that target EGFR can be used to treat some oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancers.

Cetuximab for oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancers

Cetuximab (Erbitux) is a monoclonal antibody, which is a man-made version of an immune system protein. It targets the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) protein on the surface of certain cells 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 cancer cell growth.

Cetuximab can 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), either once a week or every other week.

Possible side effects of targeted drug 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.

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.

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.

Leeman JE, Katabi N, Wong RJ, Lee NY and Romesser PB. Ch. 65 - Cancer of the Head and Neck. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier; 2020.

Mendenhall WM, Dziegielewski PT, and Pfister DG. Chapter 45- Cancer of the Head and Neck. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019. 

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. Head and Neck Cancers. Version 2.2020 -- June 09, 2020. Accessed at on September 21, 2020.

Last Revised: March 23, 2021

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