Drug Insight: cetuximab in the treatment of recurrent and metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck

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Patients with recurrent and/or metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) have a poor prognosis, particularly those whose disease has progressed on previous platinum-containing therapy. The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is expressed at very high levels in SCCHN and is associated with a poor prognosis. Several phase II-III studies have shown that the EGFR-targeting monoclonal antibody, cetuximab, offers clinical benefit for patients with SCCHN. Cetuximab monotherapy is active in patients whose cancer progresses on platinum-containing therapy. Tumor response and patient survival are in excess of what is achieved with commonly used therapies in this setting. Addition of a platinum regimen to cetuximab in patients with disease that progresses on platinum seems to confer no further benefit over cetuximab alone, either in terms of response rate or survival. In the first-line setting, cetuximab plus platinum and 5-fluorouracil significantly prolongs overall survival compared with platinum and 5-fluorouracil alone. The superior survival observed with cetuximab compared with platinum-based treatment demonstrates that cetuximab is the most active treatment for recurrent and/or metastatic SCCHN, and is of particular clinical significance.

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