Gemcitabine, cisplatin, and radiation in advanced, unresectable squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck: A feasibility study

Marco Benasso, Marco Merlano, Giuseppe Sanguineti, Renzo Corvò, Gianmauro Numico, Isabella Ricci, Eugenio Pallestrini, Alida Santelli, Vito Vitale, Giuseppe Marchetti, Riccardo Rosso

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Alternating chemoradiotherapy was shown by our institution to be superior to standard radiation in patients with nonsurgical squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCC-HN). Gemcitabine has shown in vitro and in vivo radiosensitizing properties, synergistic activity with cisplatin, and cytotoxic activity against SCC-HN. Thus, the authors tested the feasibility and antitumoral activity of a modified alternating chemoradiotherapy program that includes gemcitabine. Fourteen patients with stage IV (nine patients) or relapsed after surgery (five patients) unresectable SCC-HN were enrolled. None had previously received chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The treatment plan consisted of cisplatin, 20 mg/m2/day, days 1 to 5, weeks 1 and 5, and gemcitabine 800 mg/m2, day 5, weeks 1, 2, 3, and 5, 6, 7. Radiation was administered during weeks 2, 3, and 4 and 6, 7, and 8 with conventional fractionation up to 60 Gy. At the end of the combined therapy, patients had to receive two additional courses of cisplatin, 20 mg/m2/day, and fluorouracil, 200 mg/m2/day, for 5 days every 21 days. All the patients are evaluable for toxicity and 11 for response. Main grade III-IV toxicities and frequencies were: neutropenia (79%), neutropenia with fever (50%), thrombocytopenia (57%), anemia (35%), mucositis (100%), and cutaneous toxicity (14%). Ten patients (71%) had a weight loss greater than 10%. All but two patients needed hospitalization and tube feeding or parenteral nutrition. The median relative dose intensity of gemcitabine actually delivered was 83%. Two patients died 1 month after the end of treatment before the final evaluation. One patient died of sepsis during the additional cisplatin and fluorouracil courses before response assessment. Ten patients reached a complete response (intention to treat: 71%), and 1 patient had a partial response (9%). At a median follow-up of 34 months, the actuarial 3-year progression-free survival and overall survival are 41% and 63%, respectively. The estimated 3-year locoregional control is 70%. Considering the expected poor prognosis of the enrolled patients, this combined regimen showed an impressive antitumoral activity, but the severity of acute local and hematologic toxicity correlated makes the exportation of this regimen unproposable. However, the activity observed warrants the exploration of different, less toxic, chemo-radiotherapy programs including gemcitabine.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)618-622
Number of pages5
JournalAmerican Journal of Clinical Oncology: Cancer Clinical Trials
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2001


  • Chemoradiotherapy
  • Gemcitabine and radiation
  • Head and neck cancer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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