Until the 1990s, cytotoxic chemotherapy has been the cornerstone of medical therapy for gastrointestinal (GI) cancers. Better understanding of the molecular biology of cancer cell has led to the therapeutic revolution of targeted therapies, i.e. monoclonal antibodies or small molecule inhibitors directed against proteins that are specifically overexpressed or mutated in cancer cells. These agents being more specific to cancer cells were expected to be less toxic than cytotoxic agents.
Targeted agents have provided clinical benefit in many GI cancer types. For example, antiangiogenics and anti-EGFR therapies have significantly improved survival of patients affected by metastatic colorectal cancer and have deeply changed the therapeutic strategy in this disease. However, their effects have sometimes been disappointing, due to intrinsic or acquired resistance mechanisms (e.g., RAS mutation for anti-EGFR therapies), or to an activity restricted to some tumour settings (e.g., lack of activity in other cancer types, or on the microscopic residual disease in adjuvant setting). Many studies are negative in overall population but positive in some specific patient subgroups (e.g., trastuzumab in HER2-positive gastric cancer), illustrating the importance of patient selection and early identification of predictive biomarkers of response to these therapies.
We propose a comprehensive two-part review providing a panoramic approach of the successes and failures of targeted agents in GI cancers to unravel the pharmacologic opportunities and future directions for these agents in GI oncology. In this first part, we will focus on adenocarcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas, for which targeted therapies are mostly used in combination with chemotherapy.