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According to results presented at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the addition of Erbitux® (cetuximab) to platinum-based chemotherapy improves survival in patients with advanced head and neck cancers compared to treatment with chemotherapy only.

Head and neck cancers originate in the throat, larynx (voice box), pharynx, salivary glands, or oral cavity (lip, mouth, tongue). Most head and neck cancers involve squamous cells, which are cells that line the mouth, throat, or other structures.

Erbitux is a type of targeted therapy called a monoclonal antibody. It works by binding to a protein receptor located on many cancer cells called the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). EGFR is involved in cellular growth and replication, and by targeting EGFR, the spread of cancer can be reduced or delayed. The majority of squamous cell head and neck cancers have some type of mutation within EGFR.

Researchers from Europe recently conducted a clinical trial referred to as the EXTREME trial (Erbitux in First-Line Treatment of Recurrent or Metastatic Head and Neck Cancer). This trial included 442 patients with stages III, IV or recurrent squamous cell head and neck cancer who could not undergo local therapy. One-quarter of patients had cancer of the larynx and nearly half of the patients had cancer of the pharynx; the vast majority of patients (399) were men. Patients were treated with chemotherapy (5-fluorouracil plus either carboplatin or cisplatin) plus Erbitux or chemotherapy only. Patients who were treated with Erbitux received treatment until their cancer progressed or they experienced intolerable side effects.

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• Patients treated with Erbitux had a survival advantage of nearly 3 months compared to patients treated with chemotherapy only (10.1 months versus 7.4 months, respectively).

• The only reported side effect that was notable for patients treated with Erbitux was an acne-like rash.

The researchers concluded that the addition of Erbitux to chemotherapy appears to improve survival without severe side effects compared to chemotherapy alone in patients with advanced head and neck cancer. Patients with advanced head and neck cancer may wish to speak with their physician regarding the individual risks and benefits of treatment with Erbitux.

Reference: Vermorkin J, et al. Erbitux Extends Survival of Patients with Recurrent or Metastatic SCCHN when Added to First Line Platinum Based Therapy — Results of a Randomized Phase III (Extreme) Study. Proceedings from the 2007 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).