Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) tends to run an aggressive course and the prognosis has remained virtually unchanged in recent decades. The development of novel therapeutic strategies to improve patient outcome centres on the biology of the disease, namely the pivotal c-erbB family of growth factor receptors. c-erbB1 (or epidermal growth factor receptor, EGFR), is key to the pathogenesis of SCCHN and plays a central role in a complex network of downstream integrated signalling pathways. EGFR overexpression, detected in up to 90% of SCCHN, correlates with an increased risk of locoregional tumour relapse following primary therapy and relative resistance to treatment. The biological sequelae of erbB receptor activation are not simply cell proliferation, but also inhibition of apoptosis, enhanced migration, invasion, angiogenesis and metastasis: the 'hallmarks of cancer' . As EGFR overexpression is associated with a poor clinical outcome in SCCHN, this receptor is attractive as a therapeutic target and the successful development of targeted therapies represents a paradigm shift in the medical approach to head and neck cancer. However, the extensive cross talk between signalling pathways, the multiple molecular aberrations and genetic plasticity in SCCHN all contribute to inherent and acquired resistance to both conventional and novel therapies. Understanding the cancer cell biology, in particular the significance of co-expression of c-erbB (and other) receptors, and the cell survival stimuli from (for example) activation of the phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3-kinase) cascade is fundamental to overcome current limitations in biologically targeted therapies.