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Biological therapy for mouth cancer

Men and women discussing mouth cancer

This page is about biological therapies for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

What biological therapy is

Biological therapies are treatments that act on processes in cells. These therapies can control or destroy cancer cells. The most common biological therapy used for mouth or oropharyngeal cancer is cetuximab.

Biological therapies used for mouth or oropharyngeal cancer

Cetuximab (Erbitux) blocks areas on the surface of cancer cells that can trigger growth. Cetuximab combined with radiotherapy is used for people with locally advanced mouth or oropharyngeal cancer if chemotherapy is not working or can't be used. Cetuximab is also sometimes combined with platinum based chemotherapy for people with squamous cell head and neck cancer that has come back or has spread.

Newer biological therapies are being used in clinical trials for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. The therapies include gefitinib (Iressa), zalutumumab, everolimus and a modified virus called Reolysin.

Possible side effects

The side effects depend on which biological therapy you have but may include tiredness, diarrhoea, skin changes, a sore mouth, weakness, loss of appetite, low blood counts, and fluid build up in parts of the body.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating mouth cancer section.

 

 

What biological therapy is

Biological therapies are treatments that act on processes in cells. They can control or destroy cancer cells.

 

Cetuximab (Erbitux)

Cetuximab (Erbitux) is a type of biological therapy known as a monoclonal antibody. It is designed to block areas on the surface of cancer cells that can trigger growth. These are called epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR). Blocking these receptors can stop the signals that tell the cancer to grow. Trials have shown that cetuximab combined with radiotherapy can help people with locally advanced head and neck cancer to live longer than radiotherapy on its own.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) have approved the use of cetuximab, with radiotherapy, for locally advanced squamous cell head and neck cancer. They have approved it for people when platinum based chemotherapy (such as cisplatin or carboplatin) is not working, or cannot be used. Locally advanced cancer means cancer that has spread into the areas close to the mouth or oropharynx. But the cancer has not spread to other areas of the body such as the bone or distant lymph nodes.

Cetuximab is also used in combination with platinum based chemotherapy. It is for people with squamous cell head and neck cancer that has come back or has spread. The decision to approve cetuximab in this situation was based on the results of a large international trial called EXTREME. The trial compared cetuximab and chemotherapy to chemotherapy alone. Patients on this trial hadn't been treated before with chemotherapy. The results suggested that adding cetuximab to chemotherapy helped people to live between 2 and 3 months longer than if they just had chemotherapy on its own. But the SMC in Scotland and NICE in England decided not to recommend cetuximab for this group of patients on the NHS because it is not cost effective, so it is not widely used.

 

Other biological therapies

Newer biological therapies are being used in trials for head and neck cancer, including mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. The therapies include gefitinib (Iressa), everolimus (Afinitor), erlotinib (Tarceva), gene therapy and vaccine therapies. You can find information about these on the mouth and oropharyngeal cancer research page.

 

Side effects of biological therapies

The side effects depend on which biological therapy you have but may include

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any of these effects. You can have medicines to help to control them.

 

More information about biological therapy

Look at the main biological therapy section for detailed information. You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse to write down the names of the drugs you will have. You can then look them up in our specific cancer drug section. There are pages there for all the most commonly used biological therapy drugs. Each page has information about the side effects of that drug.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Our mouth and oropharyngeal cancer organisations page gives details of other people who can give you information about biological therapies. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our mouth and oropharyngeal cancer reading list has information about books and leaflets on cancer treatments.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum. Or you can go through My Wavelength. This is a free service that aims to put people with similar medical conditions in touch with each other.

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Updated: 16 October 2014