The carefully controlled release of irinotecan for compassionate use with a very detailed protocol for guidance and advice on safety precautions seems to have contributed to the relatively safe use of the drug outside the setting of a formal clinical trial.
Between June 1997 and September 1998, 112 patients were registered for this programme, 103 of whom actually received irinotecan. The percentage of patients experiencing grade 3-4 adverse effects was relatively low: delayed diarrhoea in 17%, nausea and vomiting 17%, acute cholinergic syndrome 6%, febrile neutropenia 4% and neutropenic infection 2%. Five partial tumour responses and a high proportion of patients with 'no change' were noted.
Irinotecan was made available to patients with colorectal cancer with elaborate precautions. Treating physicians requesting irinotecan for compassionate use received a protocol, providing recommendations for the proper use and the prevention/management of potentially troublesome adverse events. Limited demographic, toxicity and efficacy data were collected.
Irinotecan is an effective treatment for metastatic colorectal cancer. However, its use may be associated with troublesome adverse effects such as delayed diarrhoea, acute cholinergic syndrome and neutropenic infection. The manufacturer decided to release irinotecan for compassionate use in The Netherlands prior to its regulatory approval (June 1998) and first introduction for second-line treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer. In view of the drug's adverse effect profile this was done in a carefully controlled manner.