Head and neck cancer patients under (chemo-)radiotherapy undergoing nutritional intervention: Results from the prospective randomized HEADNUT-trial

Radiother Oncol. 2021 Jun;159:82-90. doi: 10.1016/j.radonc.2021.03.019. Epub 2021 Mar 23.


Purpose/objective: Patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck undergoing (chemo-)radiotherapy are at high risk of malnutrition. Nevertheless, there is still a lack of prospective, randomized trials investigating the influence of nutritional status on therapy-related toxicity and patients' outcome.

Materials and methods: Between October 2018 and October 2020, 61 patients were randomized into an intervention and control group. Questionnaires (MUST, NRS-2002, and Nutriscore), clinical examinations, laboratory analyses, and bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) were used to assess nutritional status for all patients at the beginning and end of therapy as well as every 2 weeks during therapy. The intervention consisted of an individualized nutritional counseling every 2 weeks during therapy.

Results: Median baseline BMI for all participants was 23.8 (14.5-37.2) kg/m2 and dropped to 22.9 (16.8-33) kg/m2 after therapy (p < 0.001). In all patients, median baseline fat-free mass index (FFMI) was 18.1 (14-24.7) kg/m2 and decreased to 17.8 (13.4-21.6) kg/m2 till the end of therapy (p < 0.001). Compliant patients with a BMI < 22 kg/m2 presented with less weight loss in the intervention group compared to the control (p = 0.015, CI: 0.33-2.95). At baseline, MUST was the only screening-test which showed both good sensitivity (86%) and specificity (88%) in detecting malnutrition. Median follow-up was 15 (1-26) months and is still ongoing. 2-year overall survival rate was 70% in the control and 79% in the intervention group (log-rank p = 0.79). Pretherapeutic phase angle, posttherapeutic FFMI and albumin level were prognostic indicators for overall survival (log-rank p = 0.002, p = 0.008 and p = 0.016).

Conclusions: Malnutrition negatively impacts patients' outcome under (chemo-)radiotherapy. Baseline phase angle, posttherapeutic FFMI and albumin level are proposed as reliable indicators for overall survival. This study was registered within the German Clinical Trials Register (DRKS00016862).

Keywords: Bioelectric impedance analysis; Head and neck cancer; Malnutrition; Survival; Toxicity.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / therapy
  • Humans
  • Malnutrition* / etiology
  • Nutritional Status
  • Prospective Studies