Docetaxel/Gemcitabine: Salvage Chemotherapy in Anthracycline-Pretreated Patients With Advanced Breast Cancer

Docetaxel/Gemcitabine: Salvage Chemotherapy in Anthracycline-Pretreated Patients With Advanced Breast Cancer

ABSTRACT: Docetaxel (Taxotere) and gemcitabine (Gemzar) are active agents against breast cancer. Several phase I studies evaluated different schedules of their combination and clearly demonstrated that docetaxel and gemcitabine can be safely combined in either an every 3-week schedule or in a weekly and biweekly schedule. The toxicity profiles of these combinations were mainly grade 3 and 4 neutropenia and asthenia. Phase I studies also suggested that the docetaxel/gemcitabine combinations are active regimens in pretreated patients with advanced breast cancer. Three phase II studies of patients previously treated with anthracycline-based chemotherapy reported a mean objective response rate of 46% and a mean overall survival of 13.5 months. Two of these trials enrolled patients with anthracycline-resistant or anthracycline-refractory disease; the objective responses using docetaxel/gemcitabine combination were 36% to 55% and 54%, respectively. It is noteworthy that objective responses were also achieved with this regimen in some patients who progressed while receiving taxane-based, front-line chemotherapy. These efficacy results were obtained with a mild toxicity profile. Adverse events were of short duration and easily manageable. Further studies are needed to evaluate this combination as front-line chemotherapy as well as second-line in well-defined subgroups of patients with advanced breast cancer. Furthermore, the combination should be compared with other more standard or investigational regimens. [ONCOLOGY 15(Suppl 3):18-24, 2001]


Since metastatic breast cancer remains incurable despite
temporary regression of the disease with endocrine therapy or chemotherapy,
palliation of symptoms and prolongation of high-quality life become the major
therapeutic goals in the treatment of these patients. Combination chemotherapy
used as front-line treatment for metastatic disease usually results in 35% to
75% objective responses. However, the complete response rate is relatively low
(approximately 10%) and the average duration of response only 8 months.[1]
Moreover, when disease progression occurs, a standard second-line combination
chemotherapy produces responses in 20% to 45% of patients, depending on whether
an anthracycline was included in the initial treatment.[2,3]



Docetaxel (Taxotere) is a new semisynthetic taxane with
significant anti-neoplastic activity and manageable toxicity, which consists primarily of
myelosuppression. As front-line monotherapy for metastatic breast cancer, it produced an overall response rate of
59%; as second-line therapy it achieved 46%.[4] Even for patients who relapsed
or progressed after prior anthracycline-based chemotherapy, the objective
response rate was 41%.[5]

In addition, a randomized phase III study evaluated
docetaxel/doxorubicin versus doxorubicin/cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan, Neosar) as
front-line chemotherapy of patients with metastatic breast cancer. The study
demonstrated a significantly higher objective response rate (ORR) with
docetaxel/doxorubicin (ORR = 60%) than with doxorubicin/cyclophosphamide (ORR =
47%; P = .008).[6] Docetaxel has a unique mechanism of action; it disrupts
mitosis, promotes microtubular assembly, and suppresses depolymerization of
microtubular bundles to free tubulin.[7]


Gemcitabine (Gemzar) is a novel
S-phase-specific, fluorine-substituted pyrimidine analog, phosphorylated by
deoxycytidine kinase to the active diphosphate and triphosphate metabolites. Gemcitabine diphosphate inhibits
ribonucleotide reductase, which results in the depletion of the intracellular
deoxycytidine triphosphate pools. Reduced deoxycytidine triphosphate levels
promote the competitive incorporation of gemcitabine triphosphate into DNA,
which results in the inhibition of further DNA synthesis by masked-chain

Gemcitabine has a broad range of activity against various
tumors[9] and an especially favorable toxicity profile of mild myelosuppression
and minimal nonhematologic toxicity.[10] When used as a single agent, response
rates ranged from 25% to 46%, depending on the dose administered and whether
patients had previously received chemotherapy.[11]

Combination Regimen

The distinct mechanisms of action, different intracellular
targets, and activity of both docetaxel and gemcitabine against various tumors provided the rationale for their combination.
Provided that pharmacologic antagonism does not occur and that clinically
relevant doses of both drugs can be delivered together, the combination offers
the potential for superior antitumor activity compared with the individual

This review presents data from phase I and II studies of the
docetaxel/gemcitabine combination in patients with advanced breast cancer.

Phase I Studies

Weekly Gemcitabine and
Monthly Docetaxel

Several phase I studies have evaluated the tolerance of
different schedules of the docetaxel/gemcitabine combination in advanced breast

The first study of the combination by Spiridonidis et al[12]
administered docetaxel at escalated doses (45, 60, 75, and 100 mg/m2) either on
day 1 or day 15 while gemcitabine was given in a fixed dose (800 mg/m2) on days
1, 8, and 15. The cycles were repeated every 4 weeks. In all, 40 patients were
enrolled and 132 chemotherapy cycles were delivered with a mean of three
cycles/patient (range: 1 to 11 cycles).

There were 27 and 13 patients enrolled in the day-1 and day-15
docetaxel schedules, respectively. In the day-15 schedule with docetaxel at dose
levels of 45, 60, and 75 mg/m2, only 6 of the 13 patients were able to receive
all of the planned gemcitabine administrations during the first cycle as per
protocol. Overall, the day-15 dose was omitted in 9 of 35 docetaxel cycles
because of thrombocytopenia and elevated liver enzymes, which occurred during
the first cycle in seven patients. This excessive toxicity resulted in a
decreased dose intensity of the drugs in the day-15 docetaxel schedule compared
with the day-1 schedule, enabling the investigators to prematurely close this
arm of the trial.

Conversely, using the day-1 schedule, docetaxel could be
escalated to the dose of 100 mg/m2, which is the maximum tolerated dose for
single-agent docetaxel.[10,11] In the day-1 docetaxel schedule, the day-8
gemcitabine dose was omitted in 19 cycles because of neutropenia (18 cycles) and
thrombocytopenia (1 cycle). During the day-1 docetaxel schedule, the dose-limiting toxicity was reached at the dose of docetaxel
100 mg/m2 because of two episodes of febrile neutropenia and one of liver
toxicity. Nonhematologic toxicity (asthenia) occurred in 30 patients; it was
graded as moderate to severe in 15 patients. The onset of asthenia was
unpredictable, and its severity did not appear to be cumulative. The fluid
retention syndrome was relatively rare (only three patients presented with
severe pedal edema). Grade 3 liver toxicity and grade 3 mucositis occurred in
two patients each.

Different/Escalated Doses

Rischin et al[14] conducted a phase I trial evaluating different
doses of gemcitabine (800, 1,000, and 1,200 mg/m2) given on days 1 and 8 in
combination with escalated doses of docetaxel (60, 75, 85, and 100 mg/m2) given
on day 8 in cycles of 21 days. The study enrolled 39 previously treated patients
who received a total of 152 chemotherapy cycles (median: 4 cycles/patient;
range: 1 to 8 cycles).

Dose-limiting toxicity was reached at docetaxel 100 mg/m2 and
gemcitabine 1,200 mg/m2, since three of six enrolled patients developed dose-limiting
toxicity events. One patient each experienced febrile neutropenia plus grade 3
asthenia, febrile neutropenia plus grade 3 mucositis, and febrile neutropenia
plus grade 4 neutropenia lasting more than 7 days plus grade 4 thrombocytopenia.
Neutropenia was the predominant hematologic toxicity, with grade 4 neutropenia
occurring in 64% of patients; febrile neutropenia occurred in nine patients
(seven in the first cycle) who experienced 11 episodes. Grade 4 neutropenia
lasting for more than 7 days occurred in 14 cycles. Grade 3 or 4 nonhematologic
toxicity or thrombocytopenia was infrequent, with only one patient developing grade 4 skin

The recommended doses for further phase II studies were defined
as docetaxel 85 mg/m2 and gemcitabine 1,200
mg/m2 every 21 days. However, at
this recommended level, 4 of 10 patients required treatment delay for a total of
11 out of 30 cycles because of slow neutrophil recovery.


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