Which Drug Is Used As a Targeted Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer?

Medically Reviewed on 4/27/2022
Which drug is used as a targeted therapy for head and neck cancer?
Targeted therapies find and attack specific areas or substances in the cancer cells or detect and block certain messages inside a cancer cell that made them grow.

Erbitux (cetuximab), Keytruda (pembrolizumab), and Opdivo (nivolumab) are targeted molecules approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of locally or regionally advanced head and neck squamous cell carcinoma in combination with radiation therapy.

Targeted therapies are used to treat some head and neck cancer:

  • Along with radiotherapy.
  • Along with palliative chemotherapy.
  • For people who are not fit to cope with the side effects of chemoradiation.

Other drugs approved for head and neck cancer include:

What is targeted therapy?

Targeted therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses targeted cancer therapies (drugs) designed to target the cancer cells exclusively without affecting normal cells.

Genetic changes in the cancer cells allow them to grow, divide, and spread very quickly with certain proteins or enzymes necessary for them to thrive.

Targeted therapy drugs block the growth and spread of cancer cells by interfering with these specific molecules (molecular targets) that are involved in the growth, progression, and spread of cancer. They can even signal the cancer cells to destroy themselves.

Targeted therapy is different from standard chemotherapy in two mechanisms:

  1. These drugs target only the cancer cells, whereas traditional chemotherapy is cytotoxic to most cells including the normal, healthy cells in addition to cancer cells.
  2. Targeted drugs work by preventing a cancer cell from dividing and producing new cancer cells, whereas chemotherapy kills already made cancer cells.

How does targeted therapy work?

Targeted therapies find and attack specific areas or substances in the cancer cells or detect and block certain messages inside a cancer cell that made them grow.

Some of the substances (proteins and enzymes) that can become the targets of these drugs include:

  • Excess of a certain protein on a cancer cell
  • A protein present exclusively on a cancer cell and not on the normal cells
  • A mutated or changed protein on a cancer cell
  • Genetic (DNA) changes that cannot be found in the normal cells

These targeted therapy drugs work by:

  • Blocking the chemical signals that make cancer cell cells and divide.
  • Changing the proteins within the cancer cells leads to their death.
  • Preventing new blood vessels to form (neovascularization), thus leading to cell starvation.
  • Triggering the immune system to kill the cancer cells.
  • Carrying toxins to the cancer cells to kill them.

Targeted therapy is known as precision medicine or personalized medicine because it is made to target specific changes or substances in cancer cells that are classified as small (targets and blocks a specific substance inside the cancer cell) or large molecule drugs (attacks and destroys proteins or enzymes on the cell surface).


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4 types of targeted therapy

Four types of targeted therapy include:

  1. Angiogenesis inhibitors: These drugs prevent the formation of new blood vessels, thus preventing nourishment to the cancer cells.
    • Bevacizumab is used for many types of cancer.
  2. Proteasome inhibitors: These drugs disrupt the breakdown of certain proteins that interfere with cell functioning leading to cancer cell death.
  3. Signal transduction inhibitors: These drugs disrupt cell signals, preventing cancer cell growth and division.
    • Imatinib is used in certain leukemias.
  4. Monoclonal antibodies: Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made immune system proteins that target and kill cancer cells.

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer are malignant tumors that usually arise in the cells that line the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, and throat.

Head and neck cancer account for approximately four percent of all types of cancer in the United States.

Based on their location, head and neck cancer can be divided into the following:

Most head and neck cancer are squamous cell carcinomas that begin in the flat squamous cells that make up the thin layer of tissue on the inner surface of the structures in the head and neck.

Other types include:

  • Carcinoma in situ: Cancer is only found in the squamous layer of cells
  • Invasive squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that has grown beyond the cell layer and moved into the deeper tissues
  • Cancer of unknown primary: The origin of the cancer is unknown

Risk factors for head and neck cancer

Certain factors increase the odds of developing head and neck cancer including:

What are the signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer?

The signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer include:

How is head and neck cancer treated?

Head and neck cancer can be managed by the following:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery
    • Laser technology
    • Lymph node dissection or neck dissection
    • Excision
    • Reconstructive (plastic) surgery

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Medically Reviewed on 4/27/2022
Image Source: iStock Image

How Targeted Therapies Are Used to Treat Cancer American Cancer Society: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/targeted-therapy/what-is.html

Head and Neck Cancer American Society of Clinical Oncology: https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/head-and-neck-cancer/introduction

Targeted Cancer Therapies NIH: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/targeted-therapies/targeted-therapies-fact-sheet#what-targeted-therapies-have-been-approved-for-specific-types-of-cancer