Biological therapy for thyroid cancer | Cancer Research UK
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Biological therapies for thyroid cancer

Biological therapies are treatments that act on processes in cells or change the way that cells signal to each other. They can stimulate the body to attack or control the growth of cancer cells. They can help some people with advanced thyroid cancer. Although these treatments cannot cure the disease, they may help to control it for some time.

Vandetanib for medullary thyroid cancer

You may have vandetanib (Caprelsa) for advanced medullary thyroid cancer that is causing symptoms and cannot be operated on. You take it as a tablet. The side effects include diarrhoea, stomach pain, a skin rash, feeling or being sick, tiredness (fatigue), raised blood pressure, not wanting to eat (anorexia), and difficulty sleeping. Vandetanib can affect the electrical activity of the heart and so you will have a heart trace (ECG) and blood tests before and during your treatment.

Cabozantinib for medullary thyroid cancer

You may have cabozantinib (Cometriq) for advanced medullary thyroid cancer that is causing symptoms and cannot be operated on. You take it as a tablet. The side effects include diarrhoea, not wanting to eat (anorexia), headache, a change in your blood pressure, soreness and redness of the palms of the hands and soles of the feet (hand-foot syndrome), tiredness (fatigue) and feeling or being sick.

Sorafenib for papillary and follicular thyroid cancer

You may have sorafenib (Nexavar) for advanced papillary or follicular thyroid cancer, when radioactive iodine treatment is no longer working. You take it as a tablet. The side effects include diarrhoea, soreness and redness of the palms of the hands and soles of the feet (hand-foot syndrome), a rash or red itchy skin, tiredness, hair thinning, feeling sick, raised blood pressure, and an increased risk of bleeding (for example nosebleeds or bleeding gums).

Let your doctor or nurse know if you have any side effects as you may be able to have medicines to help control them.

A number of other biological therapies are being looked at in clinical trials for thyroid cancer.
 

PDF Download symbol You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating thyroid cancer section

 

 

What biological therapy is

Biological therapies are treatments that act on processes in cells or change the way that cells signal to each other. They can stimulate the body to attack or control the growth of cancer cells. They can help some people with advanced thyroid cancer. Although these treatments cannot cure the cancer, they may help to control it for some time.

 

Vandetanib and cabozantinib for medullary thyroid cancer

Doctors can use biological therapy for people with advanced medullary thyroid cancer that is causing symptoms and cannot be operated on. You may either have  vandetanib (Caprelsa)  or cabozantinib (Cometriq).

Vandetanib and cabozantinib are both a type of drug called cancer growth blockers. These block proteins that cells use to signal to each other to grow and divide. So they can stop cancer cells growing.

You take vandetanib and cabozantinib as a tablet once a day. Although these drugs cannot cure advanced medullary thyroid cancer, they can help control the cancer for some time in some people.

The Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) do not recommend cabozantinib as a treatment for medullary thyroid cancer, and they have not assessed vandetanib. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have not assessed either of these drugs. 

 

Sorafenib for papillary and follicular thyroid cancer

You may have sorafenib (Nexavar) for advanced papillary thyroid cancer or follicular thyroid cancer, when radioactive iodine treatment is no longer working.

Sorafenib is another type of tyrosine kinase inhibitor. It works in 2 ways. It stops

  • Signals that tell cancer cells to grow
  • Cancer cells forming new blood vessels, which they need to keep growing.

You take sorafenib as a tablet once or twice a day. You usually take it for as long as it controls the cancer.

The Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) have recommended sorafenib for people with thyroid carcinoma in Scotland. It is for people with differentiated thyroid cancer that has continued to grow or is advanced, and radioactive iodine treatment is no longer working. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have not made any recommendations about sorafenib for thyroid cancer in England and Wales. 

 

Side effects of biological therapies

Some of the most common side effects of vandetanib are

Vandetanib can affect the electrical activity of the heart and so you will have a heart trace (ECG) and blood tests before and during your treatment.

Some of the most common side effects of cabozantinib are

Some of the most common side effects of sorafenib include

We have more information about the side effects of sorafenib and vandetanib in our cancer drugs section.

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any side effects as you may be able to have medicines to help control them.

 

Other biological therapies for advanced thyroid cancer

Researchers are looking at some other biological therapies in trials for advanced thyroid cancer. But we don’t yet know how well these treatments will work. All new treatments have to go through the clinical trials process and this takes some years. Other biological therapies being looked at include

There is information about research into biological therapies for thyroid cancer on the thyroid cancer research page.

You can search for trials for thyroid cancer on our clinical trials database.

 

Getting more information

We have detailed information about biological therapies. You can also ask your doctor or specialist nurse for written information.

You could contact our cancer information nurses or call them from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, on freephone 0808 800 4040. They will be happy to help.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat – our online forum.

Our thyroid cancer organisations page has details of organisations that can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our thyroid cancer reading list has information about books, leaflets and CDs on thyroid cancer treatments.

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Updated: 15 January 2015