Monoclonal Antibodies for Cancer

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Monoclonal Antibodies for Cancer


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These medicines are given by infusion into a vein (intravenous, or IV).

How It Works

Monoclonal antibodies are substances that attach only to certain proteins in the body (like a key in a lock). They contain antibodies made in a lab. These antibodies are used to destroy cancer cells.

  • Alemtuzumab targets a protein called CD52, and rituximab targets the protein CD20. These proteins are found on the surface of cells that are part of your immune system.
  • Bevacizumab blocks a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that helps cancer cells grow and multiply. Bevacizumab inhibits the ability of the cancer to form and grow new blood vessels.
  • Cetuximab and panitumumab block a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) that helps cancer cells grow and multiply.
  • Trastuzumab blocks the HER2 protein that helps cancer cells grow and multiply.

Monoclonal antibodies may not work for some people. So before you have this treatment, your tumor tissue will be checked for certain gene changes (mutations).

Why It Is Used

Monoclonal antibodies are used to treat many types of cancer. These medicines may be used alone but most often are used in combination with other chemotherapy medicines.

  • Alemtuzumab and rituximab are used to treat leukemia and lymphoma.
  • Bevacizumab is used to treat cancer, including colorectal and lung cancers. It is also used for brain tumors and kidney cancer. Bevacizumab may be used to treat cancers that are continuing to grow despite other treatment (treatment-resistant), cancers that have spread to other organs (metastasized), or cancers that have come back (recurrent).
  • Cetuximab and panitumumab are used to treat cancer, such as metastatic colorectal cancer. Cetuximab may also be used to treat skin cancer.
  • Trastuzumab is used to lower the risk of recurrent breast cancer and to treat breast cancer that has come back or spread.

How Well It Works

Monoclonal antibodies work well in treating cancer. They may also be given to lower the risk of cancer recurring, or to treat cancer that has recurred or metastasized.

Side Effects

All medicines have side effects. But many people don't feel the side effects, or they are able to deal with them. Ask your pharmacist about the side effects of each medicine you take. Side effects are also listed in the information that comes with your medicine.

Here are some important things to think about:

  • Usually the benefits of the medicine are more important than any minor side effects.
  • Side effects may go away after you take the medicine for a while.
  • If side effects still bother you and you wonder if you should keep taking the medicine, call your doctor. He or she may be able to lower your dose or change your medicine. Do not suddenly quit taking your medicine unless your doctor tells you to.

Call 911 or other emergency services right away if you have:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.

Call your doctor right away if you have:

  • Hives.
  • A skin rash that becomes infected.
  • Severe diarrhea.
  • Severe belly pain.
  • Blood that comes up when you cough.

Use alemtuzumab with caution if you have heart disease. The drug may make existing heart problems worse.

Bevacizumab and other medicines that block vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) may cause high blood pressure. Your doctor will check and closely watch your blood pressure, especially when you first start taking bevacizumab.

Bevacizumab can cause stroke, heart failure, and blood clots. It can cause other problems, including bleeding in the lungs when the medicine is used with chemotherapy for lung cancer. It may also cause holes in the colon (perforation) that have to be repaired with surgery. So people who have had or are planning to have colon surgery may not be able to use this medicine.

Cetuximab may cause serious side effects while it is being given. So people who get this medicine will be watched closely while they are getting the medicine and for at least 1 hour afterward.

Panitumumab may cause serious lung or skin problems. Your doctor will check and closely watch your calcium and magnesium levels during and after taking this medicine. Women who take this medicine may not be able to get pregnant.

Common side effects of this medicine include:

  • Shortness of breath and mild wheezing.
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting.
  • Dry skin, itching, and skin rashes.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Headaches.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Belly pain or back pain.

Some of these medicines may also cause:

  • A weakened immune system, which increases your risk of infection.
  • Low blood counts, which may increase your risk of infection or bleeding.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

These medicines can interact with many other drugs. Be sure your doctor knows what prescription and over-the-counter drugs you are taking.

Taking medicine

Medicine is one of the many tools your doctor has to treat a health problem. Taking medicine as your doctor suggests will improve your health and may prevent future problems. If you don't take your medicines properly, you may be putting your health (and perhaps your life) at risk.

There are many reasons why people have trouble taking their medicine. But in most cases, there is something you can do. For suggestions on how to work around common problems, see the topic Taking Medicines as Prescribed.

Advice for women

Do not use this medicine if you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to get pregnant. If you need to use this medicine, talk to your doctor about how you can prevent pregnancy.


Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerBrian Leber, MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology
Last RevisedDecember 14, 2012

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