Pre Operative Therapy

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Locally advanced colorectal cancer poses a difficult problem for surgeons, oncologists and radiotherapists in terms of patient survival and quality of life. In fact, median survival times after palliative resection are about 10 months, during which time the patient is usually invalid. Around 1990, many random clinical studies showed a significant increase in disease-free survival times in patients undergoing radical curative resection when combined with radio- and chemotherapy [2, 3]. It has been more difficult to demonstrate such results in patients with locally advanced colorectal cancer, as the definitions of resectability and extension of disease are not uniform and may involve neighbouring organs. In addition, there are also different prognoses among primary tumours and relapses, parameters that are not always indicated in various reports, which explains the heterogeneity present in the literature.

Given that the surgeon has a high probability of leaving residual disease in advanced cases of colorec-tal cancer, pre-operative radiotherapy has become a standard therapeutic approach. This treatment reduces the bulk of the tumour mass and increases the possibility of radical resection even in large lesions, allowing for conservative surgical intervention up to the sphincter. Pre-operative radiotherapy uses doses of at least 4500 cGy and is given four to six weeks before surgical intervention to permit optimal downstaging [9]. The clinical efficiency of pre-opera-tive radiotherapy for advanced colorectal cancer has been demonstrated in multiple reports with a frequency of resectability between 40 and 88% [10-12].

As five-year survival rates are poor (14-28%) and increase only in cases of complete resection (2943%), pre-operative radiotherapy has been combined with other therapeutic strategies. The use of chemotherapy alongside pre-operative radiotherapy has been proposed in an attempt to increase the possibility of resection and to decrease the dispersion of tumour cells during surgical intervention. Pre-opera-tive systemic treatments may also favour the eradication of circulating neoplastic cells. Such treatments also avoid the problem of the impossibility of carrying out radiochemotherapy when post-operative complications occur. Based on the experience reported by Moertel et al. [13] in patients with recurrent or non-resectable gastrointestinal carcinoma and by Petrelli et al. and Erlichman et al. [14,15] in metasta-tic colorectal carcinoma, the use of combined chemotherapy involving 5-FU has been proposed for treatment of patients with locally advanced colorec-tal carcinoma.

5-FU is an inhibitor of thymidylate synthase and its antiproliferative effect is primarily the inhibition of DNA synthesis. The mode of action of 5-FU together with its ability to render cells more sensitive to radiation [16,17], demonstrated both in vitro and in vivo, make this drug highly appropriate for combined chemoradiotherapy. Minsky et al. [18] reported the effects of combined radiochemotherapy in 52 patients who received the same dose of pre-operative radiotherapy (5040 cGy). These patients were subjected to either radiotherapy alone (11 non-resectable/21 resectable cases) or radiotherapy with intravenous 5-FU and folinic acid (20 non-resectable cases). Patients with non-resectable disease who received combined radiochemotherapy showed the highest frequency of response (20 vs. 6%) and a lower frequency of positive lymph nodes (30 vs. 53%) with respect to those treated with chemotherapy alone. Moreover, in patients with non-resectable disease the frequency of resectability was higher than in patients who received 5-FU and folinic acid with respect to those who were not given chemotherapy (90 vs. 64%). In order to obtain a systemic effect and to potentially lower the risk of distant localisation, it was found necessary to continue chemotherapy even after surgical intervention.

Chan et al. [19] reported data of 46 patients treated with pre-operative pelvic radiation (4000 cGy in

20 fractions in 4 weeks), 5-FU infusion (20 mg/m2, days 1-4 and 15-18) and mitomycin C (8 mg/m2, day 1). This was followed by surgery 6-8 weeks later. Thirty patients had tethered tumours and 16 patients had fixed tumours. After pre-operative chemoradia-tion, 41 patients (89%) underwent curative resection. Two patients (4%) had no residual tumour found (T0N0M0); 7 patients (15%) had nodal metastases. The 2-year survival was 73%. The 2-year local relapse rate was 16%. In this study the difference in local relapse between patients with fixed carcinoma vs. tethered tumours (38 vs. 10%) was statistically significant (p=0.0036). The 2-year distant failure rate was 41%, and the rates were similar for both tethered and fixed carcinomas.

It was recently hypothesised that continuous infusion of 5-FU may have advantages with respect to intravenous therapy in various gastrointestinal tumours with less side effects [20]. Under this supposition, Rich et al. [21] treated 37 patients having locally advanced colorectal carcinoma with 5-FU (i.c. 250 mg/m2/day) and cisplatin (4 mg/m2/day) for the entire duration of radiotherapy and reported a three-year survival rate of 82%. The three-year survival rate was up to 62% for patients treated with radiotherapy alone.

Chen et al. in 1994 [22] reported data of 31 patients with fixed rectal cancers (stage >cT3) treated with concomitant pre-operative chemotherapy and high-dose radiation in an effort to improve re-sectability. Three (10%) patients had partially fixed low rectal cancers, 24 (77%) patients had fixed tumours and 4 (13%) had advanced fixation with pelvic sidewall invasion. Radiation was delivered to the whole pelvis using shaped anterior and posterior and lateral fields to 45 Gy followed by a boost to the tumour. Median total radiation dose was 55.8 Gy. Chemotherapy consisted of low-dose continuous infusion of 5-FU (200-300 mg/m2/day) for the duration of radiation treatment. All 31 patients underwent surgical resection of tumour 6-8 weeks following treatment. Twenty-three (74%) of the tumours were clinically downstaged following pre-operative treatment. Of 24 fixed cancers, 11 (46%) became mobile, 6 (25%) became partially fixed and 7 remained fixed. Of the four tumours with advanced fixation, two (50%) became mobile and two 2 (50%) no longer had tumour extension to the pelvic side-wall. Two of the three initially partially fixed cancers became mobile and one remained partially fixed. Following surgery, the pathologic postradiation T-stages were as follows: T0, 10%; T1, 0%; T2, 32%; T3, 42%; and T4, 16%. Seven patients (23%) were also node-positive (T0-2:2, T3:4, T4:1) and 2 patients (6%) had liver metastases at surgery. Pre-operative chemoradi-ation was well tolerated. Five patients (16%) devel oped local recurrence of disease (T0-2: 0/13, T3:1/13 and T4: 4/5). The 3-year survival was 68%. In this study the concomitant pre-operative chemoradiation using low-dose continuous infusional 5-FU for advanced rectal cancer was found to be safe, with acceptable morbidity. This approach was associated with considerable clinical and pathologic downstag-ing of cancer. Tumour resectability was improved with potential for improved local control of disease and survival.

In the last few years the demonstration of the efficacy of new effective drugs (oxaliplatin, irinotecan, capecitabine, etc) in the metastatic setting has prompted researchers to introduce these chemother-apeutics in the pre-operative combined treatment. Up to now the association of oxaliplatin with 5-FU has particularly been developed.

Oxaliplatin has been recently demonstrated to have activity against colorectal carcinoma with a response of about 20% when given alone. Some reports have also demonstrated an increase in the antitumour activity of oxaliplatin when given in association with 5-FU [23, 24]. This has been shown both in vitro and in vivo with response rates of about 50% in patients with advanced colorectal carcinoma. Because oxaliplatin is an analogue of cisplatin it can be hypothesised that the former may also render cells more sensitive to radiotherapy, even though such an effect has not yet been documented [25].

In the phase II Lyon R0-04 study [26], 40 operable patients were treated with two cycles of chemotherapy given in weeks 1 and 5, with 130 mg/m2 oxaliplatin on day 1 followed by 5-day continuous infusion of 5-FU 350 mg/m2 and L-folinic acid 100 mg/m2 synchronously with a three-field technique radiotherapy (total dose of 50 Gy over 5 weeks with a concomitant boost approach). Surgery was planned 5 weeks later. An objective clinical response was seen in 30 patients (75%). Sphincter-saving surgery was possible in 26 patients. No post-operative deaths occurred. In 6 cases the operative specimen was sterilised (15%) and in 12 cases (30%) only a few residual cells were detected. Such a combined pre-operative chemora-diotherapy and oxaliplatin-containing regimen was well tolerated with no increase in surgical toxicity.

Aschele et al. [27] have conducted a phase I study weekly oxaliplatin and 5-FU continuous infusion with concomitant radiotherapy. A dose of oxaliplatin 60 mg/mq/week has been found to be well tolerated. Our group [28] have reported the results of a series of 30 stage II-III rectal cancer patients treated with a pre-operative radiotherapy, chemotherapy plus regional hyperthermia strategy (Fig. 1). Twenty-two patients were stage T3N0, 4 patients were T3N1, 3 were T4N0 and 1 was T4N1. In a pretreatment surgical evaluation 8 patients (26%) were considered suit-

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Fig. 1. Pre-operative combination treatment according to [28]

able candidates for sphincter conservation. Treatment consisted in radiotherapy at a median dose of 54 Gy (range 50.4-60 Gy) with daily doses of 1.8-2 Gy and chemotherapy with 5-FU continuous infusion 200 mg/mq/day for the duration of radiation and oxaliplatin 60 mg/mq once a week for 6 times. Regional hyperthermia was carried out once a week prior to radiotherapy for the first 4 weeks. Surgical treatment was carried out 4-6 weeks after the completion of the trimodality treatment. All the patients had resection of the tumour except one who refused surgical treatment. Twenty-six patients (86.6%) underwent conservative surgery. Pathological evaluation revealed downstaging in 66% cases. A complete pathological response (pCR) was obtained in 12 (40%) of pts. One patient had a pCR of the rectal lesion with surgical evidence of liver metastatic involvement. No patient stopped treatment because of toxicity. The conclusion of this study was that tri-modality pre-operative treatment for rectal carcinoma was well tolerated and seemed to increase the rate of sphincter conservation.

Carraro et al. [29] reported data of 22 patients with T3-T4 unresectable rectal cancer treated with oxaliplatin 25 mg/mq/day in 30-min infusions, followed by bolus LV 20 mg/mq/day and bolus 5-FU 375 mg/mq/day. All drugs were given on 4 days during weeks 1 and 5 of a standard radiotherapy cycle (50.4 Gy). A single oxaliplatin dose (50 mg/mq) was also given on the third week of radiotherapy. A cycle of oxaliplatin with 5-FU+LV was administered 4 weeks after chemoradiotherapy, with surgery planned 4 weeks later. Of 22 patients, 16 underwent surgery (without serious surgical complications); 12/16 had a complete resection (5/12 had sphincter preserva tion). Pathologic examination revealed 3/12 complete remissions, 2/12 minimal microscopic residual disease, 2/12 T2N0, 1/12 T3N0 and 4/12 positive nodes; 4/16 had unresectable disease. Median follow-up was 15 months (range: 3.0-43.4 months), median time to progression was 15.7 months (CI 95%, 0,31.7) and median overall survival was 19.5 months (CI 95%, 18.0,21). This study confirmed the feasibility of treatment with low-dose, 30-min daily oxaliplatin infusion.

Capecitabine is a fluoropyrimidine carbamate with antineoplastic activity. It is an orally administered systemic prodrug of 5'-deoxy-5-fluorouridine (5'-DFUR), which is converted to 5-FU. Capecitabine plus radiotherapy has the potential to replace bolus or continuous infusion 5-FU with radiation as the standard treatment for rectal cancer. Therefore it appears to simplify chemoradiation and is highly appealing to patients [30].

Kim et al. [31] conducted a study to check the efficacy and toxicity of capecitabine (a new orally administered fluoropyrimidine carbamate) in locally advanced rectal cancer. They treated 45 patients with locally advanced rectal cancer (cT3/T4 or N+) with pre-operative chemoradiation. Radiation of 45 Gy/25 fractions was delivered to the pelvis, followed by a 5.4 Gy/3 fractions boost to the primary tumour. Chemotherapy was administered concurrently with radiotherapy and consisted of 2 cycles of 14-day oral capecitabine (1650 mg/mq/day) and leucovorin (20 mg/mq/day), each of which was followed by a 7-day rest period. Surgery was performed 6 weeks after the completion of chemoradiation. Thirty-eight patients received definitive surgery. Primary tumour and node downstaging occurred in 63% and 90% of patients, respectively. The overall downstaging rate, including both primary tumour and nodes, was 84%. A pathologic complete response was achieved in 31% of patients. Twenty-one patients had tumours located initially 5 cm or less from the anal verge; among the 18 treated with surgery, 72% received sphincter-preserving surgery. No Grade 3 or 4 haematologic toxicities developed. These preliminary results suggested that pre-operative chemoradiation with capecitabine was a safe, well tolerated and effective neoadjuvant treatment modality for locally advanced rectal cancer. In addition, this pre-operative treatment showed a considerable downstaging effect on the tumour and could increase the possibility of sphincter preservation in distal rectal cancer.

Also Rodel et al. [32] conducted a study to establish the feasibility and efficacy of pre-operative radiotherapy with concurrent capecitabine and oxaliplatin in patients with rectal cancer. They treated 32 patients with locally advanced (T3/T4) or low-lying rectal cancer who received pre-operative RT (total dose, 50.4 Gy). Capecitabine was administered concurrently at 825 mg/m2 bid on days 1-14 and 22-35, with oxaliplatin starting at 50 mg/m2 on days 1, 8, 22 and 29 with planned escalation steps of 10 mg/m2. End-points of the phase II study included downstaging, histopathologic tumour regression, resectability of T4 disease and sphincter preservation in patients with low-lying tumours. These Authors found that grade 3 gastrointestinal toxicity observed in two of six patients treated with 60 mg/m2 of oxali-platin was dose-limiting. Thus, 50 mg/m2 was the recommended dose for the phase II study. T-category downstaging was achieved in 17 (55%) of 31 operated patients, and 68% of patients had negative lymph nodes. Pathologic complete response was found in 19% of the resected specimens. Radical surgery with free margins could be performed in 79% of patients with T4 disease, and 36% of patients with tumours <2 cm from the dentate line had sphincter-saving surgery.

The pre-operative strategy has become an appealing possibility of treatment as it has demonstrated a good percentage of downstaging and sphincter-saving operations and good tolerability. Only recently however a phase III study has compared patients with clinical stage T3 or T4 or node positive disease receiving a pre-operative treatment to patients randomly assigned to post-operative chemoradiothera-py. Four hundred and twenty-one patients were randomly assigned to receive pre-operative chemoradio-therapy and 402 patients to receive post-operative chemoradiotherapy. The overall five-year survival rates were 76 and 74%, respectively (p=0.80). The five-year cumulative incidence of local relapse was 6% for patients assigned to pre-operative chemora-

diotherapy and 13% in the post-operative-treatment group (p=0.006). Grade 3 or 4 acute toxic effects occurred in 27% of the patients in the pre-operative treatment group, as compared with 40% of the patients in the post-operative treatment group (p=0.001); the corresponding rates of long-term toxic effects were 14 and 24%, respectively (p=0.01) [33]. Even though no difference in overall survival was detected, pre-operative chemoradiotherapy was associated with improved local control and reduced toxicity.

Pre-operative therapy therefore constitutes an alternative to surgery as the primary treatment of high-risk rectal cancer patients. The choice between the two strategies has to take into account the patient's preference and the possibility of administering the pre-operative therapy in a highly experienced multidisciplinary team.

The challenge of the future will be the selection of patients on the basis of biological prognostic factors and the choice of the best chemotherapy regimen according to predictive molecular markers. The other direction taken in research in the neoadjuvant setting is to assess new biological therapies able to selectively target pathways that are critical for tumour growth and development, like angiogenesis [34].

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