Radiotherapy with or without erythropoietin for anemic patients with head and neck cancer: a randomized trial of the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG 99-03)

Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2007 Nov 15;69(4):1008-17. doi: 10.1016/j.ijrobp.2007.04.063. Epub 2007 Aug 23.


Purpose: To determine whether the addition of recombinant human erythropoietin (Epo) could improve the outcomes of anemic patients receiving definitive radiotherapy for squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN).

Methods and materials: Eligible patients had SCCHN, with a plan for continuous-course definitive radiotherapy (66-72 Gy) with or without chemotherapy. Patients with Stage III or IV SCCHN were required to undergo concurrent chemoradiotherapy and/or accelerated fractionation radiotherapy. Preradiotherapy hemoglobin was required to be between 9.0 g/dL and 13.5 g/dL (12.5 g/dL for women). Patients randomized to Epo received 40,000 U once weekly, starting 7-10 days before start of radiotherapy.

Results: A total of 148 patients were enrolled; 141 were evaluable. Median pretreatment hemoglobin was 12.1 g/dL. Hemoglobin levels at 4 weeks rose by an average of 1.66 g/dL in the Epo arm, compared with an average 0.24 g/dL decrease in the control arm (p = 0.0001). Median follow-up was 2.5 years (3.1 years for surviving patients). There was no statistically significant difference in the primary endpoint of local-regional failure (LRF) rate between the treatment arms. The 3-year LRF rate was 36% for control and 44% for Epo (p = 0.56). There were also no significant differences in local-regional progression-free survival (LRPFS), patterns of failure, overall survival, or toxicity. The 3-year LRPFS rate was 52% for control and 47% for Epo. The overall survival rate was 57% and 56%, respectively.

Conclusions: The addition of Epo to definitive radiotherapy for SCCHN did not improve outcomes. The study was not specifically designed to detect a potential negative association between Epo and tumor progression/survival.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anemia / blood
  • Anemia / drug therapy*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / blood
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / drug therapy
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / radiotherapy*
  • Combined Modality Therapy / methods
  • Disease-Free Survival
  • Drug Administration Schedule
  • Erythropoietin / administration & dosage
  • Erythropoietin / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / blood
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / radiotherapy*
  • Hematinics / administration & dosage
  • Hematinics / therapeutic use*
  • Hemoglobin A / analysis
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Hematinics
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Erythropoietin
  • Hemoglobin A