Phase II Clinical Trial of Neoadjuvant and Adjuvant Pembrolizumab in Resectable Local-Regionally Advanced Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Clin Cancer Res. 2022 Apr 1;28(7):1345-1352. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-21-3351.


Purpose: Patients with resected, local-regionally advanced, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) have a one-year disease-free survival (DFS) rate of 65%-69% despite adjuvant (chemo)radiotherapy. Neoadjuvant PD-1 immune-checkpoint blockade (ICB) has demonstrated clinical activity, but biomarkers of response and effect on survival remain unclear.

Patients and methods: Eligible patients had resectable squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity, larynx, hypopharynx, or oropharynx (p16-negative) and clinical stage T3-T4 and/or two or more nodal metastases or clinical extracapsular nodal extension (ENE). Patients received neoadjuvant pembrolizumab 200 mg 1-3 weeks prior to surgery, were stratified by absence (intermediate-risk) or presence (high-risk) of positive margins and/or ENE, and received adjuvant radiotherapy (60-66 Gy) and concurrent pembrolizumab (every 3 weeks × 6 doses). Patients with high-risk HNSCC also received weekly, concurrent cisplatin (40 mg/m2). Primary outcome was one-year DFS. Secondary endpoints were one-year overall survival (OS) and pathologic response (PR). Safety was evaluated with CTCAE v5.0.

Results: From February 2016 to October 2020, 92 patients enrolled. The median age was 59 years (range, 27-80), 30% were female, 86% had stage T3-T4, and 69% had ≥N2. At a median follow-up of 28 months, one-year DFS was 97% (95% CI, 71%-90%) in the intermediate-risk group and 66% (95% CI, 55%-84%) in the high-risk group. Patients with a PR had significantly improved one-year DFS relative to patients without response (93% vs. 72%, hazard ratio 0.29; 95% CI, 11%-77%). No new safety signals were identified.

Conclusions: Neoadjuvant and adjuvant pembrolizumab increased one-year DFS rate in intermediate-risk, but not high-risk, HNSCC relative to historical control. PR to neoadjuvant ICB is a promising surrogate for DFS.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial, Phase II
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized* / therapeutic use
  • Chemotherapy, Adjuvant
  • Cisplatin / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoadjuvant Therapy
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck* / drug therapy


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal, Humanized
  • pembrolizumab
  • Cisplatin