Types of Immunotherapy for Metastatic Head and Neck Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on October 12, 2019

Metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (HNSCC) can be a tough cancer to treat. But some doctors have started using a new type of treatment called immunotherapy to fight the disease. For some people, it can work better than traditional treatments like chemotherapy. You can take it on its own or along with other treatments.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with this kind of cancer, you may want to learn more about this treatment.

What Is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy uses your immune system to fight cancer. It can make your immune system behave differently so that it attacks cancer cells. Some types work by giving your immune system tools to help it destroy cancer.

Compared to chemotherapy and radiation, immunotherapy is a newer type of treatment. Doctors and researchers are still working to create different kinds of immunotherapy medications, and figure out who can benefit from them.

Immunotherapy for Metastatic HNSCC

The FDA has approved three immunotherapy drugs to treat this disease:

Nivolumab (Opdivo). This medicine is a type of drug called a checkpoint inhibitor. Your immune system uses proteins called checkpoints to tell the difference between healthy cells and invaders that need to be destroyed. Cancer cells use those checkpoints to “hide” and avoid attack. Checkpoint inhibitor drugs block those proteins and let the body find and destroy cancer cells.

Doctors give nivolumab to people with metastatic HNSCC who’ve tried chemotherapy but whose disease got worse during or after that treatment.

Pembrolizumab (Keytruda). Another checkpoint inhibitor, this drug also treats people whose MSCC has come back during or after chemo.

Cetuximab (Erbitux). This medicine is made of lab-created immune system proteins, called monoclonal antibodies, that are designed to attack the part of a tumor cell that helps it grow and divide. You may get cetuximab along with radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Scientists are testing other immunotherapies for metastatic HNSCC in clinical trials. A clinical trial happens when researchers believe a new medication or new way of using a drug may help certain people. They test it on a small number of patient volunteers. It helps researchers figure out how well these treatments work, and who should take them. If the studies show the drug is effective, the FDA will consider approving it for the disease it was tested on.

Is Immunotherapy Right for You?

Your doctor will talk to you about whether immunotherapy may be an option for your condition. If they think you would benefit from a drug that’s in a clinical trial, they’ll help you apply for that study.

Like any cancer treatment, your doctor and medical team will watch your health closely while you’re getting immunotherapy. If the treatment doesn’t lead to the results you and your doctor were hoping for, your medical team will work together to find other treatments for you to try. That may involve different forms of immunotherapy or other treatments like radiation or chemotherapy.

WebMD Medical Reference



University of California, San Francisco: "Metastatic Squamous Cell Carcinoma.”

Cleveland Clinic: "Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary."

American Cancer Society: "What is cancer immunotherapy?"

Cancer Research Institute: "Head and Neck Cancer."

Cancer Research UK: “Cetuximab (Erbitux).”

National Cancer Institute: "Adjuvant therapy," "FDA Approves Pembrolizumab for Head and Neck Cancer," “Cetuximab,” “Nivolumab,”

FDA: "Step 3: Clinical Research."

Milan Radovich, PhD, medical co-director, Indiana University/IU Health Precision Genomics Program, Indianapolis.

© 2019 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.