Low-Dose Immunotherapy in Head and Neck Cancer: A Randomized Study

J Clin Oncol. 2023 Jan 10;41(2):222-232. doi: 10.1200/JCO.22.01015. Epub 2022 Oct 20.


Purpose: The regimens approved for the treatment of advanced head and neck squamous cell carcinoma are accessible to only 1%-3% of patients in low- and middle-income countries because of their cost. In our previous study, metronomic chemotherapy improved survival in this setting. Retrospective data suggest that a low dose of nivolumab may be efficacious. Hence, we aimed to assess whether the addition of low-dose nivolumab to triple metronomic chemotherapy (TMC) improved overall survival (OS).

Methods: This was a randomized phase III superiority study. Adult patients with recurrent or newly diagnosed advanced head and neck squamous cell carcinoma being treated with palliative intent with an Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group performance status of 0-1 were eligible. Patients were randomly assigned 1:1 to TMC consisting of oral methotrexate 9 mg/m2 once a week, celecoxib 200 mg twice daily, and erlotinib 150 mg once daily, or TMC with intravenous nivolumab (TMC-I) 20 mg flat dose once every 3 weeks. The primary end point was 1-year OS.

Results: One hundred fifty-one patients were randomly assigned, 75 in TMC and 76 in the TMC-I arm. The addition of low-dose nivolumab led to an improvement in the 1-year OS from 16.3% (95% CI, 8.0 to 27.4) to 43.4% (95% CI, 30.8 to 55.3; hazard ratio, 0.545; 95% CI, 0.362 to 0.820; P = .0036). The median OS in TMC and TMC-I arms was 6.7 months (95% CI, 5.8 to 8.1) and 10.1 months (95% CI, 7.4 to 12.6), respectively (P = .0052). The rate of grade 3 and above adverse events was 50% and 46.1% in TMC and TMC-I arms, respectively (P = .744).

Conclusion: To our knowledge, this is the first-ever randomized study to demonstrate that the addition of low-dose nivolumab to metronomic chemotherapy improved OS and is an alternative standard of care for those who cannot access full-dose checkpoint inhibitors.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / adverse effects
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy / adverse effects
  • Nivolumab* / adverse effects
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / drug therapy


  • Nivolumab

Associated data

  • CTRI/CTRI/2020/11/028953