Immunotherapy for head and neck cancer

These drugs can stimulate the body’s own immune system to attack the cancer. Immunotherapy for head and neck cancer may be effective in treating some forms of head and neck squamous cell cancer.

Some types of immunotherapy drugs work by enabling the immune system to bypass “checkpoints” set up by the cancer that block the immune system. These antibody drugs can block a protein called PD-1 found on immune cells. The drugs release this “brake”, allowing the immune system to better attack the cancer.

Several checkpoint immunotherapy drugs for head and neck cancers are currently being tested in clinical trials.

Pembrolizumab has been approved for head and neck cancer, but is not yet reimbursed (as of June 2017).

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Listen to a podcast on New Cancer Treatments – Immunotherapy and Targeted Therapy

Side effects of immunotherapy

The side effects of immunotherapy drugs are different to chemotherapy, and are caused by an overactive immune system attacking the normal parts of the body. Most commonly this includes fatigue, rash and diarrhoea, but as any part of the body can be attacked by the immune system, other side effects can occur.

Early side effects can usually be controlled before they become severe, so let your medical team know as soon as they appear.

Video: What is immunotherapy?

Watch this short video to learn more about targeted and immunotherapy

This information was last reviewed in May 2017
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