Interactions between anti-EGFR therapies and cytotoxic chemotherapy in oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma: why clinical trials might have failed and how they could succeed

Madusha Meemanage, Lindsay C. Spender, Diane Collinson, Joanna Iannetta, Pranavi Challapalli, Julie Turbitt, Caroline Clark, Mark Baxter, Graeme Murray, Shaun Walsh, Zofia Miedzybrodzka, Russell D. Petty (Lead / Corresponding author)

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Purpose: Oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC) has a poor prognosis. Advanced tumours are treated with fluoropyrimidine/platinum chemotherapy followed by irinotecan or taxane monotherapy, but resistance is common and new treatments are needed. Approximately 20% of ESCCs carry copy number gain (CNG) of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene. Previous trials show that while anti-EGFR monotherapy benefits biomarker-selected patients with EGFR CNG and/or high EGFR expression, combining anti-EGFR therapies with platinum fluoropyrimidine chemotherapies is not effective, and uncertainty remains regarding the optimal cytotoxic chemotherapy partner for anti-EGFR therapies in ESCC.

Methods: The effects of EGFR CNG on fluoropyrimidine/platinum chemotherapy sensitivity in a cohort of gastroesophageal cancer patients (n = 302) was evaluated. Drug combination studies using the EGFR inhibitor gefitinib with cytotoxic chemotherapies, docetaxel, cisplatin, oxaliplatin and irinotecan, on cell proliferation and cell death of EGFR CNG ESCC cell lines were assessed.

Results: EGFR CNG in gastroesophageal cancer patients was associated with improved overall survival following fluoropyrimidine/platinum chemotherapy. However, co-administration of gefitinib and oxaliplatin or cisplatin was frequently antagonistic in cell-based assays in EGFR CNG ESCC, whereas the combination of gefitinib with docetaxel or irinotecan was more efficacious. Co-administration of gefitinib/docetaxel and sequential administration of docetaxel before gefitinib showed synergy, but docetaxel given after gefitinib was antagonistic.

Conclusion: Gefitinib/platinum co-administration demonstrated antagonism suggesting a possible explanation for the lack of benefit from addition of anti-EGFR therapies to fluoropyrimidine/platinum chemotherapy in trials. Gefitinib/docetaxel co-administration demonstrated synergy suggesting taxanes could be the most effective cytotoxic partner for anti-EGFR therapies in EGFR CNG-positive ESCC, but careful consideration of drug scheduling is required.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)361-377
Number of pages17
JournalCancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology
Early online date9 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


  • Gastroesophageal cancer
  • Gefitinib
  • EGFR
  • Docetaxel
  • Platinum
  • ESCC
  • Chemotherapy combinations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)
  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research
  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology


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