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BMC cancer


BACKGROUND: Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) activation is associated with increased production of interleukin 6 (IL6), which is intensified by radiotherapy (RT) induced inflammatory response. Elevated IL6 levels intensifies RT-induced anemia by upregulating hepcidin causing functional iron deficiency. Cetuximab, an EGFR inhibitor, has been associated with lower rates of anemia for locally advanced head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). We hypothesized that concomitant cetuximab could prevent RT-induced anemia.

METHODS: We queried our institutional head and neck cancers database for non-metastatic HNSCC cases that received RT with concomitant cetuximab or RT-only between 2006 and 2018. Cetuximab was administered for some high-risk cases medically unfit for platinum agents per multidisciplinary team evaluation. We only included patients who had at least one complete blood count in the 4 months preceding and after RT. We compared the prevalence of anemia (defined as hemoglobin (Hb) below 12 g/dL in females and 13 g/dL in males) and mean Hb levels at baseline and after RT. Improvement of anemia/Hb (resolution of baseline anemia and/or an increase of baseline Hb ≥1 g/dL after RT), and overall survival (OS) in relation to anemia/Hb dynamics were also compared.

RESULTS: A total of 171 patients were identified equally distributed between cetuximab-plus-RT and RT-only groups. The cetuximab-plus-RT group had more locally-advanced stage, oropharyngeal and high grade tumors (p < 0.001 for all). Baseline anemia/Hb were similar, however anemia after RT conclusion was higher in the cetuximab-plus-RT vs RT-only (63.5% vs. 44.2%; p = 0.017), with a mean Hb of 11.98 g/dL vs. 12.9 g/dL; p = 0.003, for both respectively. This contributed to significantly worse anemia/Hb improvement for cetuximab-plus-RT (18.8% vs. 37.2%; p = 0.007). This effect was maintained after adjusting for other factors in multivariate analysis. The prevalence of iron, vitamin-B12 and folate deficiencies; and chronic kidney disease, was non-different. Baseline anemia was associated with worse OS (p = 0.0052) for the whole study cohort. Nevertheless, improvement of anemia/Hb was only marginally associated with better OS (p = 0.068).

CONCLUSIONS: In contrast to previous studies, cetuximab was not associated with lower rates of anemia after RT for nonmetastatic HNSCC patients compared to RT-alone. Dedicated prospective studies are needed to elucidate the effect of cetuximab on RT-induced anemia.

Medical Subject Headings

Anemia; Cetuximab; ErbB Receptors; Female; Head and Neck Neoplasms; Humans; Interleukin-6; Male; Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck

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