Targeted cancer drugs for salivary gland cancer

Targeted drugs work by targeting the differences in cancer cells that help them to grow and survive. They are a treatment for salivary gland cancer when the cancer has spread or other treatments stop working. 

You might have one of these treatments if your salivary gland cancer has a gene change (mutation) or a certain protein that helps the cancer grow. This may be as part of a clinical trial.

You generally have to be quite fit and well to have some of these drugs. Your doctor will tell you if this treatment may be an option for you.

When you might have targeted drugs for salivary gland cancer

Whether you have targeted drugs will depend on:

  • the type of salivary gland cancer you have
  • how far the cancer has grown (the stage)
  • treatment you may have already had
  • whether your cancer has changes (mutations) in certain proteins or genes 

You might have a targeted drug in combination with chemotherapy.

Targeted drugs can help some people with advanced salivary gland cancer. Although these treatments can’t cure the cancer, they may help to control it for a time and help some people to live longer.

Tests on your salivary gland cancer cells

Tests can check for changes in genes (mutations) or certain proteins that help the cancer grow. They may look for changes in the:

  • Neurotrophic tyrosine receptor kinase (NTRK) gene
  • HER2 protein
  • PD-1 protein
  • PD-L1 protein

They usually test a sample of your salivary gland cancer tissue from when you were first diagnosed. Or from your operation if you had one.

The results of the tests may show whether a targeted cancer drug is suitable for you. 

Targeted drugs for salivary gland cancer

NTRK gene change 

This gene change causes the production of an abnormal protein called TRK protein. The TRK protein can make the salivary gland cancer grow. Certain drugs can target the TRK protein and aim to slow the growth of the cancer.

If your cancer has an NTRK gene change then you might have the following targeted cancer drugs:

  • larotrectinib (Vitrakvi)
  • entrectinib (Rozlytrek)

Larotrectinib is a capsule or liquid that you swallow. You have this twice a day.

Entrectinib is a capsule that you swallow. You take this once a day.

You have these medicines for as long as the treatment is working. And you are not getting too many side effects.

HER2 positive

Certain drugs can target HER2 Open a glossary itempositive cancers. If you have HER2 positive salivary gland cancer that is advanced or has come back after previous treatment you might have:

  • trastuzumab
  • pertuzumab

These drugs are given into your bloodstream, usually every 3 weeks.

You can read more about these drugs and their side effects on our A to Z drugs list.

Hormone therapy for salivary gland cancer

Some salivary gland cancers make a protein called an androgen receptor. Hormones in the body can attach to these receptors and can encourage cancer cells to divide and grow.

A type of hormone treatment can attach to these receptors and stop the cancer from growing. These drugs are called anti androgens Open a glossary item.

If you have advanced or metastatic salivary gland cancer you might have anti androgen treatment. An example of an anti androgen is the drug bicalutamide. 

Bicalutamide is sometimes given with another hormone treatment called leuprorelin.

Leuprorelin lowers the hormone levels in the blood. This means that there aren't many hormones left to attach to the androgen receptor. This makes it harder for the cancer cells to grow.

Your salivary gland cancer cells can be tested in the laboratory, to see if it has androgen receptors.

Side effects

Everyone is different and the side effects vary from person to person. The side effects you have depend on:

  • which drug you have
  • whether you have it alone or with other drugs
  • the amount of drug you have (the dose)
  • your general health

A side effect may get better or worse during your course of treatment. Or more side effects may develop as the treatment goes on. For more information about the side effects of your treatment, go to the individual drug pages.

Research into targeted cancer drugs and immunotherapy drugs for salivary gland cancer

Researchers are trying to find better treatments for salivary gland cancer. This includes learning more about the genetic make-up of individual cancers and developing different types of targeted drugs and immunotherapies.

Immunotherapy uses our immune system to fight cancer. It works by helping the immune system recognise and attack cancer cells. You might be offered immunotherapy as part of a clinical trial. 

Researchers are looking at these drugs on their own or combined with other treatments. 

New treatments are tested in clinical trials, so ask your doctor if there are any trials suitable for you.

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  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (12th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
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  • Salivary gland cancer: ESMO-European Reference Network on Rare Adult Solid Cancers (EURACAN) Clinical Practice Guideline for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    C van Herpen and others
    Practice Guideline ESMO Open, 2022. Vol 7, Issue 6

  • Malignant salivary gland tumors: Treatment of recurrent and metastatic disease
    S Laurie and B Schiff
    UpToDate (accessed May 2023)

  • Electronic Medicines Compendium 
    Accessed May 2023

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
24 Nov 2023
Next review due: 
24 Nov 2023

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