Background: The results of the recently published large European randomised study in rectal cancer (European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer 22921 trial) do not support current guidelines recommending postoperative chemotherapy for patients who have previously undergone preoperative radiochemotherapy or radiotherapy [radio(chemo)therapy]. To evaluate this discrepancy further, a systematic review of relevant randomised trials was undertaken.
Materials and methods: A systematic literature search was carried out in order to identify randomised studies exploring adjuvant chemotherapy against observation in patients with rectal cancer previously treated with preoperative radio(chemo)therapy.
Results: A statistically significant benefit of adjuvant chemotherapy was not found in any of the four relevant randomised trials. Non-protocolised subgroup analysis of one study indicated a beneficial effect of adjuvant chemotherapy for high rectal tumours and for patients downstaged to ypT0-2N0 but no effect for low-lying rectal tumours. However, the body of evidence indicates that patients downstaged after radio(chemo)therapy to ypT0-2N0 disease are not candidates for testing adjuvant chemotherapy in future trials due to the considerable over-treatment anticipated by this manoeuvre.
Conclusions: To resolve the issue in question, a meta-analysis of relevant studies is required, and new trials should be launched to explore new drug combinations against observation. Currently, delivery of adjuvant chemotherapy in patients undergoing preoperative radio(chemo)therapy is not evidence based.