Head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC) exhibiting resistance to the EGFR-targeting drug cetuximab poses a challenge to their effective clinical management. Here, we report a specific mechanism of resistance in this setting based upon the presence of a single nucleotide polymorphism encoding EGFR-K521(K-allele), which is expressed in >40% of HNSCC cases. Patients expressing the K-allele showed significantly shorter progression-free survival upon palliative treatment with cetuximab plus chemotherapy or radiation. In several EGFR-mediated cancer models, cetuximab failed to inhibit downstream signaling or to kill cells harboring a high K-allele frequency. Cetuximab affinity for EGFR-K521was reduced slightly, but ligand-mediated EGFR activation was intact. We found a lack of glycan sialyation on EGFR-K521that associated with reduced protein stability, suggesting a structural basis for reduced cetuximab efficacy. CetuGEX, an antibody with optimized Fc glycosylation targeting the same epitope as cetuximab, restored HNSCC sensitivity in a manner associated with antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity rather than EGFR pathway inhibition. Overall, our results highlight EGFR-K521expression as a key mechanism of cetuximab resistance to evaluate prospectively as a predictive biomarker in HNSCC patients. Further, they offer a preclinical rationale for the use of ADCC-optimized antibodies to treat tumors harboring this EGFR isoform.Cancer Res; 77(5); 1188-99. ©2016 AACR.