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About targeted cancer drugs

Targeted cancer drugs are treatments that change the way cells work and help the body to control the growth of cancer. They work by ‘targeting’ the differences that help a cancer cell to survive and grow.

You might have a targeted cancer drug called cetuximab as part of your treatment for laryngeal cancer.

What are targeted cancer drugs?

Targeted cancer drugs help the body to control the growth of cancer cells. 

They can work by:

  • stopping cancer cells from growing and dividing
  • seeking out and killing cancer cells
  • encouraging the immune system to kill cancer cells
  • stopping the blood and nutrient supply to the cancer

You might hear some targeted drugs being called biological therapies. 

When you might have targeted drug treatments

You might have a type of targeted cancer drug called cetuximab as a treatment for laryngeal cancer. 

Whether you have targeted therapy depends on:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • how far the cancer has grown (the stage)
  • what other treatments you can have

Types of targeted cancer drugs

Cetuximab (Erbitux)

Cetuximab (or Erbitux) is a type of targeted cancer drug called a monoclonal antibody. You might have cetuximab together with radiotherapy for laryngeal cancer

Monoclonal antibodies work by recognising and finding specific proteins on cancer cells. Different types of cancer have different proteins. The monoconal antibody stops particular proteins from binding to cancer cells or blocking it from triggering the cancer cells to divide and grow. 

Diagram showing a monoclonal antibody attached to a cancer cell

Cetuximab (Erbitux) works by blocking proteins on cancer cells called epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR).

When do you have it?

You might have cetuximab combined with radiotherapy if you have locally advanced laryngeal cancer. And you can't have platinum based chemotherapy (such as cisplatin or carboplatin) for any reason. Locally advanced cancer means cancer that has spread into the areas close to the voice box, but not to other areas of the body such as the bone or distant lymph nodes.

You may also have cetuximab if your laryngeal cancer has come back or has spread. To be able to have this, your doctor needs to make an individual application to a special fund called Cancer Drugs Fund. 

Other targeted cancer drugs

Nivolumab has been approved and is currently funded by NHS England on the Cancer Drugs Fund.

Researchers are looking at other types of targeted cancer drugs in clinical trials for laryngeal cancer. These therapies include gefitinib (Iressa) and everolimus (Afinitor).

Side effects

Possible side effects of targeted cancer drugs can include:

  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • diarrhoea
  • skin changes (rashes or discolouration that can be severe for some people)
  • a sore mouth
  • weakness
  • loss of appetite
  • low blood counts
  • swelling parts of the body (due to build up of fluid)
Tell your doctor if you have any of these effects. You can have medicines that help to control them.
Last reviewed: 
26 Jul 2018
  • Delivering affordable cancer care in high-income countries
    Sullivan and others
    The Lancet Oncology, 2011. Vol: 12. Issue 10

  • Cetuximab for the treatment of locally advanced squamous cell cancer of the head and neck
    The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2008

  • Cetuximab for the treatment of recurrent and/or metastatic squamous cell cancer of the head and neck
    The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2009

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