Model of Tarceva molecule

Tarceva (erlotinib) is an orally administered pill used against some lung and pancreatic cancers. It is a targeted treatment, meaning its mechanism is very different than that of chemotherapy.

Tarceva is an EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor: EGFR is a protein found in high levels on the surface of many cancer cells. When it binds with another protein, EGF, this attachment stimulates the cell to begin dividing. Tarceva gets between these proteins by attaching to the EGFR and inhibiting the cell from dividing, thereby slowing tumor growth1.

What it's effective for and why

Tarceva was first approved by the FDA in 2004 for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer after the failure of at least one prior chemotherapy regimen2. A year later it was approved when used with Gemzar (gemcitabine) for certain patients with pancreatic cancer, and in the spring of 2010 it received a third indication, this time as maintenance therapy for non-small cell lung cancer when platinum-based chemotherapy has prevented disease progression3.

Side effects: Overview

The list of potential side effects associated with Tarceva is an unusually long one, even for a targeted anti-cancer agent. According to the laundry list at MedlinePlus4, Tarceva can potentially cause the basics like diarrhea and nausea to serious issues affecting the skin, from blisters, itching, or rashes, as well as pain in the chest or extremities, speech problems and sunken eyes, to name a few.


  1. MedicineNet.com: Definition of EGFR
  2. Shepherd FA et al. "Erlotinib in previously treated non-small-cell lung cancer." N Engl J Med. 2005 Jul 14;353(2):123-32.
  3. National Cancer Institute: FDA approval for Erlotinib
  4. MedlinePlus: Erlotinib side effects.


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