Case Report

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Case 1. A male patient in his 60s was treated in our institution for metastatic rectal cancer. The patient was in good condition otherwise and had no known allergies – in particular, no food allergies. It was decided that a combined therapy of irinotecan (180 mg/m2 intravenously [IV] over 90 minutes) and cetuximab (400 mg/m2 IV with the first dose over 180 minutes) against the metastasis be used.

On the day of the first infusion of cetuximab, the patient remained in good condition. He was pretreated, as required, with dexchlorpheniramine (5 mg IV). However, at 1 minute after beginning the cetuximab infusion (after receiving ∼2 mg of the drug), the patient developed a generalized rash and malaise, with loss of consciousness and hypotension, imme­diately followed by cardiorespiratory arrest. Cetuximab was immediately stopped and the patient was supported with fluid resuscitation, intubation, mechanical ventilation, and high-dose IV epinephrine (up to 15 mg/day). He was transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU). Despite an initial improvement, he died as a result of the reaction. High levels of tryptase and histamine (277 µg/L [normal value ,12.5 µg/L] and 6,580 nmol/L [normal value ,6 nmol/L], respectively) mea­sured at 1 hour after the reaction confirmed allergic hyper­sensitivity. Retrospectively, we assayed for anticetuximab IgE in a serum sample taken from the patient before treatment with cetuximab and stored in a biobank. The assay was highly positive (3,300 arbitrary units [AU]: laboratory normal value ,29 AU).9

Case 2. The second case was that of an 81-year-old man who was followed for locally advanced head and neck cancer. A history of asthma was noted without any other medical or allergy history. Combined treatment with cetuximab (400 mg/m2 IV for the first dose) and radiotherapy was decided upon. As part of a research protocol (European Clinical Trials Data­base number: 2009–016968–37), we measured serum anti­cetuximab IgE, which was strongly increased (480 AU). As allowed under the protocol, and after multidisciplinary con­sultation, the referring physician decided to administer cetux­imab under close monitoring in the presence of an intensivist and with resuscitation equipment on standby. The patient was pretreated with methylprednisolone (120 mg IV) and dexchlorpheniramine (10 mg IV). Cetuximab was infused at half the usual speed (100 mg/hour). Despite these precautions, after receiving approximately 13 mg of the drug, the patient developed dyspnea, loss of consciousness, and respiratory arrest. Cetuximab was immediately stopped and the patient was supported with epinephrine (1 mg IV), fluid resuscita­tion, and transient ventilatory support. The patient recovered all vital functions without subsequent complications. He was transferred to the ICU for 24 h of monitoring. The patient was allowed to return home the next day and could later resume radiotherapy without cetuximab. Plasma histamine concentra­tion was increased (.100 nmol/L), as was tryptase (64 µg/L). These results and the clinical presentation confirmed the aller­gic nature of this reaction.

Case 3. In the third case report, a 50-year-old male patient was treated for recurrence of mouth cancer. A history of asthma was noted with no other medical history and without a food allergy past. The patient was in good condition. It was decided to give this patient a combined treatment of cisplatin (100 mg/m2 IV over 60 minutes), 5-fluorouracil (1,000 mg/m2 IV per day for 4 days), and cetuximab (400 mg/m2 IV over 180 minutes). The anticetuximab IgE assay was strongly positive (490 AU). Thus, it was decided to maintain the prescription of cetuximab under close monitoring. After administration of 60 mg of cetuximab, the patient devel­oped tachycardia of 120 bpm, oxygen desaturation of 89%, and tachypnea of 30 breaths/minutes with a bronchospasm. Cetuximab was immediately stopped, and the patient received methylprednisolone (60 mg IV) and dexchlorpheniramine (10 mg IV), as well as inhaled ipratropium, terbutaline, and oxygen. Recovery was immediate and complete.

Case 4. The fourth case report is of a 54-year-old male patient with no other medical history who was treated for locally advanced head and neck cancer. We planned to give a combined chemotherapy treatment that included cetux­imab. However, the anticetuximab IgE level was very high (260 AU). Intradermal tests (IDTs) were performed with cetuximab at increasing concentrations, starting at 0.5 µg/mL. IDT became positive with cetuximab at 5 µg/mL. After mul­tidisciplinary discussion, and as allowed by the protocol, we decided not to administer a cetuximab infusion given the high risk of an allergic reaction; instead, the patient was given an alternative therapy of cisplatin plus 5-fluorouracil.


We reported on three patients who developed life-threatening hypersensitivity to cetuximab, which could have been pre­dicted by assessing the concentration of serum anticetuximab IgE: Table 1 summarizes the different cases. Hypersensitivity reactions are a classic side effect of monoclonal antibodies.10 The frequency of severe reactions to cetuximab varies in the literature from 1.2%–22%, depending on different areas of the world.1–6,11 Fatal reactions, as in one of our cases, have been reported.12–14 Clinicians often underestimate this complication until they themselves are confronted with such a case. It is now well documented that these hypersensitivity reactions are mediated by preexisting specific anticetuximab IgE.8 How­ever, the origin of these specific antibodies is still debated. A strong correlation between the occurrence of hypersensitiv­ity reactions to cetuximab and the presence of anticetuximab IgE in the sera of patients before a first injection of cetuximab has been demonstrated.8,9

TABLE 1. Case descriptions

Patients Anticetuximab
IgE Assay (Normal Value <29 AU)
Cetuximab Infusion Performed Hypersensitivity Reaction (Grade*) Tryptase (Normal Value <12.5 µg/L)  Histamine (Normal Value <6 nmol/L)
1 3300 AU   Yes Yes (5)   277 µg/L 6,580 nmol/L
2 480 AU              Yes              Yes (4)              64 µg/L >100 nmol/L
3 490 AU              Yes              Yes (3)            
4 260 AU              No              — 
Notes: The results of anticetuximab IgE assay are expressed in Arbitrary Units (AU). *The grade of reactions was established according to NCICTAE v4.0.

Several teams have attempted to determine the discrimi­nating markers that enable the identification of subjects who are likely to develop a hypersensitivity reaction to cetuximab. An atopic history and Caucasian origin are significantly asso­ciated with this hypersensitivity, but these criteria are not suf­ficient to select patients at risk.4,7 In this context, identifying specific IgE against cetuximab seems to be a good candidate. According to the study by Chung et al,8 anticetuximab IgE assays have high sensitivity (92%) and specificity (90%) if used as a diagnostic test to identify patients who are likely to develop life-threatening reactions. The development of anticetuxmab IgE as a screening test for severe hypersensitiv­ity reactions to cetuximab could be a major issue for patients from areas with a high incidence of hypersensitivity reactions to cetuximab or a high prevalence of IgE antibodies against cetuximab, such as in Tennessee or North Carolina, United States.4,8

Using this perspective, we have developed an ELISA assay for anticetuximab IgE.9 As in Chung et al’s study,8 the detection of anticetuximab IgE is based on using cetuximab itself as a coating reagent to allow for binding of the specific IgE. This test probably prevented the death of the second patient described above.