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Biological therapies

Biological therapies are drugs that change the way that cells work and help the body control the growth of cancer.

Some seek out and destroy cancer cells. Others help the body to attack the cancer.

How you have biological therapies

You can have biological therapies as:

  • a drip in your arm
  • an injection under the skin
  • a tablet

Biological therapies for stomach cancer

Trastuzumab (Herceptin)

Trastuzumab has the brand name Herceptin. It’s a monoclonal antibody. Monoclonal antibodies work by attaching to proteins on or in cancer cells.

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Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) is a protein that makes cells grow and divide. Some cancers have large amounts of HER2 protein and are called HER2 positive cancers. 

Trastuzumab works by locking onto HER2 in the cancer cells. It both stops them from growing and kills them. Herceptin only works if your cancer is HER2 positive.

Before you start

Around 1 in 5 people (20%) have HER2 positive stomach cancer. A sample of your tumour (biopsy) will show if it’s HER2 positive. You can have trastuzumab as a first treatment if your stomach cancer is advanced and is HER2 positive.

You’ll also have blood tests and a heart scan before you start.

How you have it

You have trastuzumab every 3 weeks with chemotherapy, normally into your blood stream through a drip in your arm.

Ramucirumab

Ramucirumab is another type of monoclonal antibody. It targets a different protein – vascular endothelial growth factor receptor 2 (VEGFR2). This drug works by blocking the protein so that the cancer can’t develop the blood vessels it needs to grow.

Some studies have shown that ramucirumab is beneficial for people with advanced stomach cancer, when other treatments haven’t worked. At the moment it’s not routinely available in the UK.

Research

Researchers are looking into new types of biological therapies for stomach cancer. Some research is looking into using biological therapies alongside chemotherapy to see how they work best together.

Side effects of biological therapies

The side effects of biological therapies are different depending on the drug you’re having. Not everyone gets all side effects.

Side effects include:

  • allergic reaction
  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness
  • flu-like symptoms including fever, muscle aches and sickness
  • low blood counts

Trastuzumab can cause some damage to the heart and you’ll have regular checks to study your heart function.

When you go home

Treatment for stomach cancer can be difficult to cope with. Tell your doctor or nurse about any problems or side effects you have. Your nurse will give you numbers to call if you have any problems at home.

Last reviewed: 
22 Jul 2016
  • Biological Therapies for Cancer
    National Cancer Institute, 2013
    Accessed May 2016

  • Electronic medicines compendium, SPC and PILs
    Accessed May 2016

  • Gastric cancer: The times they are a-changin’
    Satolli and others
    World Journal of Gastrointestinal Oncology. Volume 7, Issue 11

  • Trastuzumab in combination with chemotherapy versus chemotherapy alone for treatment of HER2-positive advanced gastric or gastro-oesophageal junction cancer (ToGA): a phase 3, open-label, randomised controlled trial
    Bang and others
    The Lancet, 2010. Vol 376, Issue 9742

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