Three Experts Discuss the Use of Cetuximab in Head and Neck Cancers

Andrew J. Roth
Published: Sunday, Nov 30, 2014
Dr. Ezra Cohen

Ezra Cohen, MD

Cetuximab is the only FDA-approved EGFR inhibitor for the treatment of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck. It is approved for the treatment of head and neck cancer in three settings: as initial treatment of locally or regionally advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) in combination with radiation therapy, as first-line treatment of recurrent locoregional disease or metastatic SCCHN in combination with platinum-based therapy with 5-FU, and as a single agent for recurrent or metastatic SCCHN for which prior platinum-based therapy has failed.

In a recent installment of OncLive Insights, Barbara Murphy, MD, from Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Robert Ferris, MD, PhD, from the University of Pittsburgh, and Ezra Cohen, MD, from the University of California, San Diego, discussed the role and safety of cetuximab in head and neck cancer that tests positive for the human papillomavirus (HPV).

OncLive: How do you incorporate cetuximab into the treatment of patients with HPV-positive head and neck cancer?

Cohen: There are multiple ways that one can incorporate cetuximab into the treatment of HPV-positive head and neck cancers. The most common way cetuximab is incorporated is in combination with radiation. We know that the addition of cetuximab to radiation therapy alone elicits better local regional control and better overall survival than radiation therapy alone. In a phase III trial that added cetuximab to radiation, a 10% absolute improvement in overall survival was seen at 3 and at 5 years with the combination.

At this year’s ASCO meeting, we saw data looking at the effect of HPV status on efficacy. Investigators asked the question: did it matter if a patient was HPV-positive or HPV-negative when applying cetuximab and radiation in the curative approach setting? The answer was no, HPV-positive patients and HPV-negative patients appear to benefit to the same degree. When we’re beginning to select therapy for HPV-positive patients, we know cetuximab plus radiation is going to yield the same degree of benefit regardless of HPV status.

What is the role of cetuximab in ongoing clinical trials in locally advanced head and neck cancer?

Murphy: There is a group of researchers looking at radiation alone in patients who have earlier-stage HPV because data show that these are radiation-sensitive tumors, and chemotherapy may not be needed. Among patients who have locally advanced but good-risk disease, the question becomes: how can we decrease the toxicity of radiation? One way is by switching chemotherapy with cetuximab. The hope is that there will be fewer acute and longterm side effects.

There’s another approach being investigated: decreasing the amount of radiation that’s being delivered. In this approach, an oncologist first administers induction chemotherapy and monitors the patient’s response. If the patient responds well, he/she should be administered shorter courses of radiation therapy along with platinum- or cetuximab-based chemotherapy. If the patient does not have a good response, he/she should go back to the standard course of radiation with concurrent chemotherapy. This is a response-adapted approach to therapy.

All of these various approaches are being investigated for the HPV-positive patient population with early-stage or low-risk disease.

In the high-risk patient population, the concern centers around the need to cure these patients. De-escalation of therapy in this group is not appropriate right now, so there is a need for a new or novel therapeutic approach.

What are some of the common toxicities you see with cetuximab? How do you approach the management of these toxicities?

Ferris: Cetuximab’s most concerning side effect is fortunately quite rare. An infusion reaction occurs in very few patients, so we obviously monitor for that and intervene. An infusion reaction can be managed quite effectively. In the southeastern United States, the frequency of reported infusion reactions is higher. Overall, it’s not a major clinical problem.

Murphy: When we administer cetuximab, we always have to be aware that it can cause an anaphylactic reaction. The rate of anaphylactic reactions is highly variable depending on what part of the country you’re in. It’s important to know the rate of anaphylaxis in your area and to plan accordingly.

I happen to be in an area where there’s a very high anaphylaxis rate, so we perform a mini-dose administration before giving the full dose. In areas of the country where the reaction rates are very low, that’s not necessary.

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