Immunotherapy with Pembrolizumab Improves Head/Neck Cancer Survival

By David Costill
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According to a breaking presentation from ESMO Congress 2018 in Munich, immunotherapy with pembrolizumab demonstrated increased survival in patients with recurred or metastasized head and neck cancer.

“Patients with PD-L1 expression live longer when they have initial treatment with pembrolizumab,” Barbara Burtness, MD, of the Yale School of Medicine and co-director of the Development Therapeutics Research Program at the Yale Cancer Center, said in a press release. “Pembrolizumab appears to prolong life even when the cancer continues to grow, suggesting that it should be a first-line therapy in recurrent and metastatic head and neck cancer.”


Photos courtesy of ESMO.

The researchers studied results from the phase III KEYNOTE-048. In this data-set the research team randomized patients at a 1:1:1 ratio, with a control group receiving platinum-based chemotherapy and cetuximab (standard therapy, a group receiving pembrolizumab alone, and a group receiving a combo therapy with pembrolizumab and platinum-based chemotherapy.

Study results showed that when pembrolizumab alone was compared with standard therapy, patients with PD-L1 expression had significantly greater overall survival in the pembrolizumab group, at 14.9 months vs 10.7 months (P = .0007).

Further, when the pembrolizumab/chemotherapy combo was compared to standard care, overall survival was longer in the pembrolizumab group at 13 months vs 10.7 months (P = .0034). Response rates were similar between these two groups (35.6% vs 36.3%).

The researchers noted that there were no differences in progression-free survival in all three study groups.

Burtness concluded that her team is trying to determine how to better target cancer in this patient population with use of pembrolizumab.

“Whether pembrolizumab is given alone or with chemotherapy may depend on PD-L1 expression and we are conducting analyses to answer this question,” she said.