5 min readErbitux – First Targeted Therapy for Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancer arises in the head or neck region (in the nasal cavity, sinuses, lip, mouth, salivary glands, throat, or larynx [voice box]). Most cancers of the head and neck are of a type called carcinoma (in particular squamous cell carcinoma – SCCHN), making up to 90.0 percent of all H&N cancers. The cancer begins in the squamous cells that line the mucosal surfaces in the head and neck. Carcinomas of the head and neck start in the cells that form the lining of the mouth, nose, throat or ear, or the surface layer covering the tongue.

Head and neck cancers account for approximately 6.0 percent of all cancers worldwide and approximately 10.0 percent of male cancers in the EU as stated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Research has also indicated that in most countries, it is more common in males compared to females and in people aged 50 and over. Additionally, there is a high incidence of the disease in France and Germany compared to some of the other European countries because head and neck cancers are strongly correlated to alcohol and tobacco use. The overall estimated incidence figure from the IARC is around 140,000, with over 65,000 deaths per year in Europe. The worldwide incidence exceeds half a million cases annually, with nearly 250,000 deaths.

There are three main types of treatment for head and neck cancer aimed at either removing the visible cancer or reducing the chances of the cancer coming back. These include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Two other treatments may sometimes be used and these include photodynamic therapy (PDT) and biological therapies. Sometimes the treatment of head and neck cancers will involve two or more treatments combined together. The treatment plan for an individual patient depends on a number of factors, including the exact location of the tumour, the stage of the cancer, and the person’s age and general health.

Key Challenges
Head and neck cancer still remains a major challenge for physicians who are still waiting for new ideas and new concepts. Despite improvements in surgical techniques and the development of novel chemoradiotherapy strategies, survival in patients with head and neck cancer has remained relatively unchanged over the last 30 years, with no significant advances. Research has shown that five year survival rates have traditionally remained poor at around only 33.0 percent.

Chemotherapy has not changed this high recurrence rate but it has been shown to increase rates of organ preservation when combined with radiation therapy and decrease rates of distant metastasis. Newer therapies are however showing promise for the future. In particular, newer types of drugs are being studied for head and neck cancer that are not like traditional chemotherapy drugs, which attack tumours but harm healthy tissues as well. The new agents work by specifically targeting cancer cells. A growing number of targeted therapies that predominately attack cancer cells, leaving most healthy cells intact are proving to be effective against a range of cancers including breast, colon, lung, kidney, and head and neck cancers, and lymphoma.



Figure 1: Some of the key challenges in the head and neck cancer therapeutics market 

Clinical trials, Erbitux, head and neck cancer, Healthcare IT, targeted therapy, Targeted Therapy for Head and Neck Cancers


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