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Erbitux Extends Life for Head and Neck Cancer Patients

Used in tandem with chemotherapy, it block cancer cells from dividing and growing

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 10, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Adding the drug Erbitux to standard chemotherapy improved survival rates in patients with recurrent or metastatic cancers of the head and neck, a new study found.

Erbitux (cetuximab), a so-called monoclonal antibody, works by blocking cellular receptors, preventing tumor cells from receiving signals that tell them to grow and divide. The drug has been used successfully in metastatic colon cancer and now appears to also benefit patients with head and neck cancers.

"This is the first treatment in 30 years to prolong survival in first-line recurrent and/or metastatic head and neck cancer," said lead researcher Dr. Jan B. Vermorken, of the Department of Oncology at Antwerp University Hospital, in Belgium.

For this phase III trial, Vermorken's group randomly assigned 442 patients with recurrent metastatic head and neck cancers to receive Erbitux plus cisplatin or carboplatin plus 5-fluorouracil, or chemotherapy alone.

The researchers found that patients receiving Erbitux plus the chemotherapy had an overall survival of nearly 10.1 months, compared with 7.4 months for patients receiving chemotherapy alone. "This equates to a 20 percent risk reduction of death during the study period," Vermorken said.

Patients taking Erbitux also had a 70 percent increase in disease progression-free survival -- 5.6 months versus 3.3 months. And, there was an 80 percent increase in response rate to treatment among patients taking Erbitux -- 36 percent compared with 20 percent, Vermorken said.

"This gain in survival was not accompanied by any additional, detrimental effects on quality of life," Vermorken said. "These findings support the notion that platinum/5-fluorouracil plus cetuximab can be seen as a new standard for the treatment of recurrent and/or metastatic head and neck cancer."

The study findings are published in the Sept. 11 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Alfred I. Neugut, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and co-director of cancer prevention at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, thinks Erbitux should be the standard of care for head and neck cancer.

"These findings are straightforward. It's going to change the treatment for head and neck cancer," Neugut said.

More information

For more on head and neck cancers, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Jan B. Vermorken, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Oncology, Antwerp University Hospital, Belgium; Alfred I. Neugut, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine and epidemiology, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and co-director of cancer prevention, New York Presbyterian Hospital, New York City; Sept. 11, 2008, New England Journal of Medicine
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