Targeted cancer drugs and immunotherapy

Targeted cancer drugs work by ‘targeting’ those differences that help a cancer cell to grow and survive. Some seek out and destroy cancer cells. Others help the body's immune system to attack the cancer. So some of these drugs are also called immunotherapies.

Types of targeted cancer drugs

Monoclonal antibodies (MABs) are a type of targeted drug therapy. Monoclonal just means all one type. So each MAB is a lot of copies of one type of antibody. They are made in a laboratory.

How do MABS work?

MABs work by recognising and finding specific proteins on cancer cells.

Each MAB recognises one particular protein. So different MABs have to be made to target different types of cancer. Depending on the protein they are targeting, they work in different ways to kill the cancer cell or stop it from growing.

Diagram showing a monoclonal antibody attached to a cancer cell
Cetuximab (Erbitix)

Cetuximab is a monoclonal antibody sometimes used to treat mouth and oropharyngeal cancer.

You might have cetuximab with radiotherapy if you have squamous cell head and neck cancer which is locally advanced. You might have it in one of the following situations:

  • your platinum chemotherapy (for example cisplatin or carboplatin) is not working
  • you cannot have chemotherapy

Squamous cell cancer is the most common type of mouth cancer. Locally advanced means the cancer has spread into areas close to the mouth or oropharynx, but not to other areas of the body or distant lymph nodes.

If your cancer has come back or spread, you might have cetuximab with chemotherapy, But this treatment is not available everywhere in the UK.

MABs that help the immune system to attack cancer

Other MABs work by acting on cells of the immune system. An example is a group of drugs called checkpoint inhibitors.  They block proteins that stop the immune system attacking cancer cells.

Checkpoint inhibitors block different proteins, including PD-1 and PD-L1 (programmed death ligand 1). So you might also hear some of these drugs called PD-1 inhibitors or PD-L1 inhibitors.


Nivolumab is a type of immunotherapy Open a glossary item. This type of treatment stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells.

Nivolumab is available on the NHS in the UK. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you can have nivolumab if you have:

  • squamous cell cancer that has come back or spread to other parts of the body
  • had platinum based chemotherapy (such as cisplatin or carboplatin) and your cancer has started to grow within 6 months of having chemotherapy

In Scotland, the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) says that you can have nivolumab if your cancer continues to grow while on or after having platinum based chemotherapy. You can have it for up to 2 years.

Side effects of MABS

The side effects you have depend on:

  • which drug you have
  • whether you have it alone or with other drugs
  • your general health

The possible side effects of MABs include:

  • skin changes such as red and sore skin or an itchy rash
  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness
  • flu-like symptoms such as chills, fever, dizziness
  • feeling or being sick

A common side effect of some MABs is an allergic reaction to the drug. This reaction is most likely to happen during treatment and when you first have the treatment. You have some drugs before treatment to try to prevent a reaction if this is possible with your drug.

Your medical team will talk through possible side effects. They will explain when you should contact them.

For more information about the side effects of your treatment go to the individual drug pages.

Other targeted cancer drugs

Doctors are looking at other targeted cancer drugs for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer in clinical trials. 

This page is due for review. We will update this as soon as possible.

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