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Br J Cancer. 2006 Feb 13;94(3):363-71.

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy prior to preoperative chemoradiation or radiation in rectal cancer: should we be more cautious?

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  • 1Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, Northwood, Middlesex, HA6 2RN, UK.


Neoadjuvant chemotherapy (NACT) is a term originally used to describe the administration of chemotherapy preoperatively before surgery. The original rationale for administering NACT or so-called induction chemotherapy to shrink or downstage a locally advanced tumour, and thereby facilitate more effective local treatment with surgery or radiotherapy, has been extended with the introduction of more effective combinations of chemotherapy to include reducing the risks of metastatic disease. It seems logical that survival could be lengthened, or organ preservation rates increased in resectable tumours by NACT. In rectal cancer NACT is being increasingly used in locally advanced and nonmetastatic unresectable tumours. Randomised studies in advanced colorectal cancer show high response rates to combination cytotoxic therapy. This evidence of efficacy coupled with the introduction of novel molecular targeted therapies (such as Bevacizumab and Cetuximab), and long waiting times for radiotherapy have rekindled an interest in delivering NACT in locally advanced rectal cancer. In contrast, this enthusiasm is currently waning in other sites such as head and neck and nasopharynx cancer where traditionally NACT has been used. So, is NACT in rectal cancer a real advance or just history repeating itself? In this review, we aimed to explore the advantages and disadvantages of the separate approaches of neoadjuvant, concurrent and consolidation chemotherapy in locally advanced rectal cancer, drawing on theoretical principles, preclinical studies and clinical experience both in rectal cancer and other disease sites. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy may improve outcome in terms of disease-free or overall survival in selected groups in some disease sites, but this strategy has not been shown to be associated with better outcomes than postoperative adjuvant chemotherapy. In particular, there is insufficient data in rectal cancer. The evidence for benefit is strongest when NACT is administered before surgical resection. In contrast, the data in favour of NACT before radiation or chemoradiation (CRT) is inconclusive, despite the suggestion that response to induction chemotherapy can predict response to subsequent radiotherapy. The observation that spectacular responses to chemotherapy before radical radiotherapy did not result in improved survival, was noted 25 years ago. However, multiple trials in head and neck cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, non-small-cell lung cancer, small-cell lung cancer and cervical cancer do not support the routine use of NACT either as an alternative, or as additional benefit to CRT. The addition of NACT does not appear to enhance local control over concurrent CRT or radiotherapy alone. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy before CRT or radiation should be used with caution, and only in the context of clinical trials. The evidence base suggests that concurrent CRT with early positioning of radiotherapy appears the best option for patients with locally advanced rectal cancer and in all disease sites where radiation is the primary local therapy.

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