Pembrolizumab Alone or With Chemotherapy for Recurrent/Metastatic Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma in KEYNOTE-048: Subgroup Analysis by Programmed Death Ligand-1 Combined Positive Score

J Clin Oncol. 2022 Jul 20;40(21):2321-2332. doi: 10.1200/JCO.21.02198. Epub 2022 Mar 25.


Purpose: The phase III KEYNOTE-048 ( identifier: NCT02358031) trial of pembrolizumab in recurrent or metastatic (R/M) head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) included planned efficacy analyses in the total population and in participants with programmed death ligand-1 (PD-L1) combined positive score (CPS) ≥ 1 and CPS ≥ 20. To further characterize the predictive value of PD-L1 expression on outcome, we conducted efficacy analyses in the PD-L1 CPS < 1 and CPS 1-19 subgroups in KEYNOTE-048.

Methods: Participants with R/M HNSCC and no prior systemic therapy for R/M disease were randomly assigned 1:1:1 to pembrolizumab, pembrolizumab-chemotherapy, or cetuximab-chemotherapy. Post hoc efficacy analyses of the PD-L1 CPS < 1 and CPS 1-19 subgroups were performed.

Results: Of 882 participants enrolled, 128 had PD-L1 CPS < 1 and 373 had CPS 1-19. For pembrolizumab versus cetuximab-chemotherapy, the median overall survival was 7.9 versus 11.3 months in the PD-L1 CPS < 1 subgroup (hazard ratio [HR], 1.51 [95% CI, 0.96 to 2.37]) and 10.8 versus 10.1 months in the CPS 1-19 subgroup (HR, 0.86 [95% CI, 0.66 to 1.12]). For pembrolizumab-chemotherapy versus cetuximab-chemotherapy, the median overall survival was 11.3 versus 10.7 months in the PD-L1 CPS < 1 subgroup (HR, 1.21 [95% CI, 0.76 to 1.94]) and 12.7 versus 9.9 months in the CPS 1-19 subgroup (HR, 0.71 [95% CI, 0.54 to 0.94]).

Conclusion: Increased efficacy of pembrolizumab or pembrolizumab-chemotherapy was observed with increasing PD-L1 expression. PD-L1 CPS < 1 subgroup analysis was limited by small participant numbers. Results from the PD-L1 CPS 1-19 subgroup support previous findings of treatment benefit with pembrolizumab monotherapy and pembrolizumab-chemotherapy in patients with PD-L1 CPS ≥ 1 tumors. Although PD-L1 expression is informative, exploration of additional predictive biomarkers is needed for low PD-L1-expressing HNSCC.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / therapeutic use
  • B7-H1 Antigen* / metabolism
  • Cetuximab / therapeutic use
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / pathology
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / drug therapy


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • B7-H1 Antigen
  • CD274 protein, human
  • pembrolizumab
  • Cetuximab

Associated data