Background: Brain radiotherapy is used to treat cancer patients who have brain metastases resulting from various primary malignancies.
Objectives: To assess the effectiveness and adverse effects of whole brain radiotherapy (WBRT) in adult patients with multiple metastases to the brain.
Search strategy: CENTRAL (The Cochrane Library), MEDLINE, EMBASE, CANCERLIT, and CINAHL were searched.
Selection criteria: Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in which adult patients with multiple metastases to the brain from any primary cancer and treated with WBRT were included. Trials of prophylactic WBRT were excluded as well as trials that dealt with surgery or WBRT, or both, for the treatment of a single brain metastasis.
Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently abstracted information for each predetermined outcome: overall survival at six months, intracranial progression-free duration, local brain response, local brain control, quality of life, symptom control, neurological function, and the proportion of patients able to reduce the daily dexamethasone dose. Adverse effects were also collected.
Main results: Eight published reports (nine trials) showed no benefit of altered dose-fractionation schedules as compared to control fractionation (3000 cGy in 10 fractions) of WBRT on the probability of survival at six months. These studies also showed no difference in symptom control nor neurologic improvement among the different dose-fractionation schemes. The addition of radiosensitizers, in five RCTs, did not confer additional benefit to WBRT in either overall median survival times or brain tumor response rates. The addition of the radiosensitizer motexafin gadolinium did not improve quality of life nor time to neurologic progression overall. For the radiosensitizer misonidazole, there was no improvement in Karnofsky performance score outcomes. Three RCTs found no benefit in overall survival with the use of WBRT and a radiosurgery boost as compared to WBRT alone for selected patients with multiple brain metastases (up to four brain metastases). Overall, however, there was a statistically significant improvement in local brain control favoring the whole brain radiotherapy and radiosurgery boost arm. Only one trial of radiosurgery boost with WBRT reported an improved Karnofsky performance score outcome and improved ability to reduce dexamethasone dose. One RCT examined the use of WBRT and prednisone versus prednisone alone and produced inconclusive results.
Authors' conclusions: None of the RCTs with altered dose-fractionation schemes as compared to standard delivery (3000 cGy in ten fractions) found a benefit in terms of overall survival, neurologic function, or symptom control. The use of radiosensitizers or chemotherapy in conjunction with WBRT remains experimental. A radiosurgery boost with WBRT may improve local disease control in selected patients, although survival remains unchanged. The benefit of WBRT as compared to supportive care alone has not been studied in RCTs. It may be that supportive care alone, without WBRT, may be appropriate for some patients, particularly those with advanced disease and poor performance status.