Basal cell carcinomas are the most common skin cancers. They are usually localised and carry a good prognosis. There is no standard treatment for the rare patients with metastatic basal cell carcinoma or very extensive basal cell carcinoma for whom surgery or radiotherapy is inappropriate.
Vismodegib ( Erivedge ), a cytotoxic drug, is claimed to prevent tumour growth by inhibiting a pathway involved in tissue repair and embryogenesis. It has been authorised in the European Union for patients with metastatic or locally advanced and extensive basal cell carcinoma.
Clinical evaluation of Vismodegib is based on a non-comparative clinical trial involving 104 patients, providing only weak evidence. Twenty-one months after the start of the trial, 7 patients with metastases ( 21% ) and 6 patients with advanced basal cell carcinoma ( 10% ) had died.
Given the lack of a placebo group, there is no way of knowing whether Vismodegib had any effect, positive or negative, on survival.
There were no complete responses among patients with metastases, but about one-third of them had partial responses.
Among the 63 patients with locally advanced basal cell carcinoma, there were 14 complete responses and 16 partial responses.
The recurrence rate in patients with complete responses was not reported.
Similar results were reported in two other uncontrolled trials available in mid-2014.
Vismodegib has frequent and sometimes serious adverse effects, including muscle spasms, fatigue and severe hyponatraemia. Cases of severe weight loss, alopecia, ocular disorders, other cancers ( including squamous cell carcinoma ) and anaemia have also been reported.
More data are needed on possible hepatic and cardiovascular adverse effects.
A potent teratogenic effect was seen in experimental animals. As Vismodegib enters semen, contraception is mandatory for both men ( condoms ) and women.
In practice, Vismodegib has frequent and varied adverse effects, some of which are serious, while its benefits are poorly documented.
Vismodegib should only be proposed to patients in whom basal cell cancer markedly undermines quality of life, and only in the context of clinical research. ( Xagena )
Prescrire Int 2015;24:11-14