Background: Previous trials showed promising antitumor activity and an acceptable safety profile associated with pembrolizumab in patients with early triple-negative breast cancer. Whether the addition of pembrolizumab to neoadjuvant chemotherapy would significantly increase the percentage of patients with early triple-negative breast cancer who have a pathological complete response (defined as no invasive cancer in the breast and negative nodes) at definitive surgery is unclear.
Methods: In this phase 3 trial, we randomly assigned (in a 2:1 ratio) patients with previously untreated stage II or stage III triple-negative breast cancer to receive neoadjuvant therapy with four cycles of pembrolizumab (at a dose of 200 mg) every 3 weeks plus paclitaxel and carboplatin (784 patients; the pembrolizumab-chemotherapy group) or placebo every 3 weeks plus paclitaxel and carboplatin (390 patients; the placebo-chemotherapy group); the two groups then received an additional four cycles of pembrolizumab or placebo, and both groups received doxorubicin-cyclophosphamide or epirubicin-cyclophosphamide. After definitive surgery, the patients received adjuvant pembrolizumab or placebo every 3 weeks for up to nine cycles. The primary end points were a pathological complete response at the time of definitive surgery and event-free survival in the intention-to-treat population.
Results: At the first interim analysis, among the first 602 patients who underwent randomization, the percentage of patients with a pathological complete response was 64.8% (95% confidence interval [CI], 59.9 to 69.5) in the pembrolizumab-chemotherapy group and 51.2% (95% CI, 44.1 to 58.3) in the placebo-chemotherapy group (estimated treatment difference, 13.6 percentage points; 95% CI, 5.4 to 21.8; P<0.001). After a median follow-up of 15.5 months (range, 2.7 to 25.0), 58 of 784 patients (7.4%) in the pembrolizumab-chemotherapy group and 46 of 390 patients (11.8%) in the placebo-chemotherapy group had disease progression that precluded definitive surgery, had local or distant recurrence or a second primary tumor, or died from any cause (hazard ratio, 0.63; 95% CI, 0.43 to 0.93). Across all treatment phases, the incidence of treatment-related adverse events of grade 3 or higher was 78.0% in the pembrolizumab-chemotherapy group and 73.0% in the placebo-chemotherapy group, including death in 0.4% (3 patients) and 0.3% (1 patient), respectively.
Conclusions: Among patients with early triple-negative breast cancer, the percentage with a pathological complete response was significantly higher among those who received pembrolizumab plus neoadjuvant chemotherapy than among those who received placebo plus neoadjuvant chemotherapy.