Pembrolizumab may be an effective treatment for patients with recurrent or metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, according to a study published in The Lancet Oncology.1

In this open-label, multicenter, phase 1b trial, 60 patients over 18 years of age with programmed death receptor 1 (PD-L1)-positive squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck were enrolled and treated with pembrolizumab, a PD-L1 antibody, at a dose of 10 mg/kg every 2 weeks.

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The overall response rate was 18% (8 of 45 patients [95% CI 8-32]), half of which were human papillomavirus (HPV)-positive. The response rates of HPV-positive and HPV-negative patients, however, were 25% (4 of 16) and 14% (4 of 29), respectively.

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The authors suggested that their findings support further study of pembrolizumab as treatment for patients with advanced head and neck cancers, for whom there are few current options. Adverse effects included increases in alanine aminotransferase and in aspartate aminotransferase, and hyponatremia, and 1 patient developed a grade 3 drug-related rash. No drug-related deaths were reported.


  1. Seiwert, TY, Burtness, B, Mehra, R, Weiss, J, Berger, R, Eder, JP, et al. Safety and clinical activity of pembrolizumab for treatment of recurrent or metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (KEYNOTE-012): an open-label, multicentre, phase 1b trial [published online ahead of print May 27, 2016]. Lancet Oncol. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(16)30066-3.