Cancers of the head and neck that arise from habitual exposure to carcinogens have lower cure rates than those that arise from infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), and intensification of cytotoxic chemotherapy and radiation has not improved outcomes. HPV-negative head and neck cancers abundantly express EGFR, and the monoclonal antibody cetuximab, directed against EGFR, is the only targeted therapy that has improved disease survival so far. However, response rates to single-agent cetuximab are lower than 15%, and cetuximab given with chemotherapy or radiation leads to only a modest effect on survival. Thus, investigating the mechanisms of resistance to EGFR inhibition in HPV-negative head and neck cancer might help identify novel and active therapies. In this Review, we focus on therapies in development that target redundant receptor tyrosine kinases (eg, HER2 and MET), reduce or abrogate nuclear functions of EGFR, affect cellular trafficking by inhibition of histone deacetylase, or treatments that might address resistance that arises in the EGFR signalling stream (eg, aurora-kinase inhibitors and STAT decoys).
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