Conference Coverage

Pembro/chemo combo fails to improve event-free survival in head and neck cancer



Adding pembrolizumab (Keytruda) to chemoradiotherapy did not significantly improve event-free survival, compared with CRT plus placebo as first-line therapy for patients with locally advanced head and neck squamous cell cancers (HNSCC), reported investigators of the KEYNOTE-412 trial.

Among 804 patients with newly diagnosed, pathologically proven, unresected locally advanced head and neck squamous cell carcinomas who were followed for a median of 47.7 months, the event-free survival (EFS) rate with the pembrolizumab/CRT combination followed by maintenance pembrolizumab was 63.2%, compared with 56.2% for CRT plus placebo. This translated into a nonsignificant hazard ratio of 0.83, said Jean-Pascal Machiels, MD, PhD, at the annual meeting of the European Society for Medical Oncology.

Despite the trial failing to meet its primary endpoint, Dr. Machiels expressed optimism about the results.

“Pembrolizumab with chemoradiation was associated with a favorable trend toward improved event-free survival versus placebo plus chemoradiation in patients with locally advanced head and neck cancer,” he said.

He noted that the 2-year EFS rate was 63% with pembrolizumab, compared with 56% with placebo.

The data also support the hypothesis that programmed death–ligand 1 (PD-L1) expression as measured by a combined positive score (CPS) could be a predictive biomarker for identifying those patients most likely to respond to the immune checkpoint inhibitor, he added.

KEYNOTE-412 details

The rationale for combining the checkpoint inhibitors pembrolizumab with chemoradiotherapy comes from the KEYNOTE-048 trial results of which showed a survival improvement for the use of pembrolizumab plus a platinum-containing regimen as a first-line therapy for recurrent or metastatic HNSCC, as well as pembrolizumab monotherapy for patients with PD-L1 CPS of 1 or greater.

In the current study, Dr. Machiels and colleagues studied whether adding pembrolizumab to CRT could benefit patients with treatment-naive unresected, locally advanced HNSCC.

Eligible patients included those with stage T3 or T4, N0-N3 or any N2a-3 (T1-T4) cancers of the larynx, hypopharynx, or oral cavity, and either p16-negative oropharynx cancers or T4 or N3 p16-positive oropharynx cancer. Patients were required to be eligible for high-dose cisplatin-based CRT.

A total of 804 patients were randomized, 402 in each arm, to receive either pembrolizumab 200 mg intravenously every 3 weeks for 3 cycles plus CRT followed by maintenance pembrolizumab for 14 cycles, or to placebo plus CRT followed by placebo maintenance.

As noted before, there was no significant difference between the study arms for the primary endpoint of EFS. The 24-month EFS rate was 63.2% for the pembrolizumab group, compared with 56.2% for controls. The respective 6-month EFS rates were 57.4% versus 52.1%.­

In a post hoc analysis, both EFS and overall survival were numerically with pembrolizumab among patients with PD-L1 CPS of 20 or greater. The respective 2- and 3-year EFS rates were 71.2% versus 62.6%, and 66.7% versus 57.2%.

The 24-months overall survival rates were 83.3% with pembrolizumab and 79.9% with placebo, and 36-month rates were 79.1% and 73%, respectively.

Neither EFS rates nor OS rates among patients in this subgroup differed significantly; however, there were no new safety signals with the combination, Dr. Machiels said. The incidence of grade 3 or greater adverse events was 92.2% in the pembrolizumab arm versus 88.4% in the placebo arm. Four patients in the pembrolizumab arm and six in the control arm died from treatment-related causes.


Recommended Reading

At-home test for oral/throat cancer launched in U.S.
Nearly 30% of U.S. cancer deaths linked to smoking
Demographics in Early vs Late-Stage Laryngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma: A NCDB Review
Trends in Palliative Care Utilization and Facility Type for Stage IV Esophageal Cancer: A National Cancer Database Analysis
First drug for desmoid tumors: ‘Impressive’ data for nirogacestat