Radiation therapy may effectively treat head and neck cancers when combined with chemotherapy, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Radiation Oncology.

According to background information provided by the study’s lead author Dwight Heron, MD, professor of otolaryngology and vice chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, surgical treatments for many patients with recurrent, locally advanced head and neck cancers are frequently limited, while other treatments either fail to adequately control the disease progression or are too toxic for patients to manage. “When surgery and certain combinations of chemotherapy and radiation therapy are deemed either high risk or too toxic as treatment options, very specialized radiation therapy strategies are frequently considered,” noted Dr. Heron. “Unfortunately, conventional radiation therapy, including intensity-modulated radiation therapy, often has debilitating side effects for this subset of patients, and we are often faced with the challenge of how to treat their cancers aggressively while limiting the risk of side effects.”

For the study, Dr. Heron and colleagues enrolled 24 patients with recurrent head and neck cancers who had previously undergone radiation therapy treatment. Patients received the chemotherapy cetuximab a week before and during the 2-week course of stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT), a radiation therapy procedure that is designed to precisely deliver a large dose of radiation to tumors.

Results of the study revealed that the combined regime was a safe treatment option and may improve overall patient survival rates. By combining cetuximab and SBRT, Dr. Heron and his team reduced treatment time from 6 weeks to 1 week while improving the side effects of retreatment.

“We think this combination also may improve local control and perhaps survival rates, as we have seen in our own retrospective series,” Dr. Heron concluded. “Most importantly, this study contributes to the emerging data fueled by the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) suggesting a role for SBRT in patients with recurrent head and neck cancers.”