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Cancers (Basel)


The anti-PD1 monoclonal antibody pembrolizumab improves survival in recurrent/metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Patients with locoregional, pathologically high-risk HNSCC recur frequently despite adjuvant cisplatin-radiation therapy (CRT). Targeting PD1 may reverse immunosuppression induced by HNSCC and CRT. We conducted a phase I trial with an expansion cohort (n = 20) to determine the recommended phase II schedule (RP2S) for adding fixed-dose pembrolizumab to standard adjuvant CRT. Eligible patients had resected HPV-negative, stage III-IV oral cavity, pharynx, or larynx HNSCC with extracapsular nodal extension or positive margin. RP2S was declared if three or fewer dose-limiting toxicities (DLT) occurred in a cohort of 12. DLT was defined as grade 3 or higher non-hematologic adverse event (AE) related to pembrolizumab, immune-related AE requiring over 2 weeks of systemic steroids, or unacceptable RT delay. A total of 34 patients enrolled at 23 NRG institutions. During the first cohort, only one DLT was observed (fever), thus RP2S was declared as pembrolizumab 200 mg every 3 weeks for eight doses, starting one week before CRT. During expansion, three additional DLTs were observed (wound infection, diverticulitis, nausea). Of the 34 patients, 28 (82%) received five or more doses of pembrolizumab. This regimen was safe and feasible in a cooperative group setting. Further development is warranted.

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