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ASCO 2016: Pembrolizumab Shows Significant Clinical Response in Recurrent/Metastatic Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma

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Key Points

  • Pembrolizumab elicited a partial response in 17% of the 92 patients evaluable for a response (171 were treated). An additional 18 patients had stable disease.
  • The overall response rate was 17%, more than triple the rate observed with methotrexate, the approved agent for head and neck cancer resistant to platinum-based chemotherapy and cetuximab.
  • The drug seemed to be equally effective in patients who were both positive and negative for human papillomavirus. 

Treating head and neck cancer patients with recurrent or metastatic disease with the programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) inhibitor pembrolizumab (Keytruda) achieved significant clinical responses in nearly one-fifth of the patients from a phase II clinical trial, researchers from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the University of Pennsylvania, and other institutions reported at the 2016 ASCO Annual Meeting (Abstract 6011).

Robert I. Haddad, MD, Leader of the Head and Neck Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber, is senior author of the report of preliminary results from the KEYNOTE-055 trial. The findings were presented at ASCO by Joshua Bauml, MD, Assistant Professor of Hematology/Oncology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Study Findings

Pembrolizumab elicited a partial response in 17% of the 92 patients evaluable for a response (171 were treated). An additional 18 patients had stable disease.

The overall response rate was 17%, more than triple the rate observed with methotrexate, the approved agent for head and neck cancer resistant to platinum-based chemotherapy and cetuximab (Erbitux). Patients enrolled in the trial had all stopped responding to or did not benefit from treatment with platinum-based drugs and cetuximab. The overall survival was 8 months—an encouraging result since many patients who don’t respond to chemotherapy or cetuximab die within 6 months.

The drug seemed to be equally effective in patients who were both positive and negative for human papillomavirus (HPV), which is now the leading cause of head and neck cancers of the oropharynx. The drug was also well-tolerated.

“The studies presented at ASCO are practice-changing and show a significant effect of immune checkpoints inhibitors on disease progression in head and neck cancer,” said Dr. Haddad. “We expect these agents to form the backbone of treating recurrent head and neck cancer going forward.”

“Pembrolizumab is a promising therapy for certain patient populations,” Dr. Bauml said. “This could help potentially fill a treatment void and prolong survival for patients with an aggressive form of head and neck cancer, regardless of their HPV status.”

“The phase I and phase II trials have shown encouraging data that suggests immunotherapy targeting the PD-1 axis can help this group of patients, who are currently left with few options,” Dr. Bauml said. “I look forward to seeing results from the ongoing phase III trials investigating pembrolizumab vs standard-of-care chemotherapy. These trials will be able to show the drug’s clinical value earlier in the treatment of head and neck cancer.”

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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