Non-surgical treatment of primary liver cancer



AW Morrow Gastroenterology and Liver Centre, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, New South Wales, Australia


The majority of patients diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma are not able to undergo surgical resection either because of the severity of their underlying liver disease, or because the size and number of tumours precludes such an approach. Liver transplantation is also inappropriate for many patients with hepatocellular carcinoma either because of the extent of disease or limitations in access. A range of effective non-surgical treatments is available for patients of hepatocellular carcinoma, so that now an effective therapy is potentially available to all but those with terminal disease. Commonly used local ablative treatments for patients with smaller tumours include radiofrequency ablation and percutaneous alcohol injection. Transarterial chemoembolisation is most suitable for patients with intermediate stage disease, multifocal tumours without vascular invasion and those with large solitary lesions (>3cm diameter). Recently, targeted systemic therapy with an oral multikinase inhibitor, sorafenib, has shown significant benefit in prolonging survival in patients with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma. Many other targeted drug therapies are in clinical trial development. Combination approaches with radiofrequency ablation and transarterial chemoembolisation, and with radiofrequency ablation or transarterial chemoembolisation with sorafenib or other targeted therapies, are under evaluation. It is critical that patients are staged at presentation with regard to the severity of liver disease, tumour stage and performance status, and that management is undertaken within a multidisciplinary setting to ensure the best outcomes.

The majority of patients who are diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) are unsuitable for surgical resection or liver transplantation. However, there are effective treatments for these patients that while not being ‘curative’, have been shown to prolong survival. It is therefore imperative that every patient is considered by a multidisciplinary team to decide an overall management approach both initially and repeatedly over time.1

Non-surgical treatments include so-called ablative techniques such as percutaneous alcohol injection or radiofrequency ablation and trans-arterial treatments such as transarterial chemoembolisation. Systemic chemotherapy, hormonal therapies and external beam radiation have been shown to be ineffective in the treatment of HCC. Recently however, a large multicentre study has demonstrated the benefit of an oral multikinase inhibitor, sorafenib, in delaying tumour progression and improving overall survival in patients with advanced HCC.

The choice of which treatment or combinations of treatment to use in any individual case is complex and related to the size, number and location of the tumours, whether vascular invasion or extrahepatic disease is present, the status of the underlying liver disease and the performance status of the patient.

Staging systems

Both prognosis and the choice of therapy are determined by the stage of the patient at presentation. Multiple staging systems have been reported and validated in patients with HCC, including systems from Spain, France, Italy, Japan and China. Increasingly, the Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer staging system (figure 1) is forming the basis for patient selection into clinical trials and treatment algorithms and has been endorsed by several international associations.2,3 This system has the advantage of classifying the patient according to the severity of liver disease and the degree of portal hypertension (Child-Turcotte Pugh score), tumour status and physical status, allowing recommendations for appropriate management. With this system, patients are classified as stage 0 (very early), stage A (early), stage B (intermediate), stage C (advanced) and stage D (terminal). Recommendations for evidence-based appropriate treatment are made for each stage, except stage D (terminal) where only supportive care is appropriate. Non-surgical treatments are appropriate for patients with stage A and stage B disease, although some of these patients may also be appropriate for liver transplantation, with loco-regional therapies being used to control disease while on the transplant waiting list.

Figure 1: Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer staging classification and treatment schedule

The American Joint Committee on Cancer has developed and recently modified, a TNM (tumour, node, metastases) staging system for HCC.4 However, this system is really only applicable for patients undergoing surgical resection or liver transplantation and has less relevance for patients with non-surgical disease. It is a pathologic staging system incorporating histologic grading, extent of local disease, regional lymph nodes and distant metastases, but it does not include the features of liver disease (synthetic function and portal hypertension), nor the patient’s performance status. Most major treatment centres have developed local management algorithms that take into account stage of liver disease and tumour stage, as well as local resources and facilities.5

Ablative techniques

Percutaneous ethanol injection
Percutaneous ethanol injection (PEI) of small HCCs was first described in 1983 and until recently, has been the most widely used local ablative therapy. Its advantages relate to it being inexpensive, widely available and well tolerated, and the fact that it can be administered in an outpatient setting. The procedure involves instillation of 95-100% ethanol through a fine needle directly into the tumour nodule under ultrasound or CT guidance, with the aim of inducing complete tumour necrosis. The risk of needle track seeding of tumour is minimal (case reports only).6,7 In general, effective use of PEI is limited to tumours less than 3cm in diameter, with superior outcomes in patients with solitary rather than multiple lesions. In patients with three or fewer lesions, all under 3cm, PEI is associated with one, three and five-year survival rates of approximately 94%, 70% and 27% respectively, and tumour recurrence rates by five years of 74%-98%.6,8

Several recent meta-analyses of randomised trials comparing PEI with a newer ablative technique, radiofrequency ablation (RFA), identified inferior overall, one, two and three-year survival rates, and inferior local tumour responses for PEI.9-11 Hence, because of high tumour recurrence rates and poor long-term outcomes, PEI can no longer be recommended as primary therapy in patients for whom other techniques such as RFA or transarterial chemoembolisation (TACE) can be performed.

Radiofrequency ablation
Radiofrequency ablation has become the primary ablative modality for the treatment of HCC in most institutions and is accepted as the most appropriate therapy for the treatment of small lesions in patients who are unsuitable for surgical resection or liver transplantation.12 It can also be used to control small tumours in patients awaiting liver transplantation.

In most cases, RFA is performed percutaneously under intravenous sedation or general anaesthetic, with imaging guidance provided by real-time ultrasound, CT or MRI, according to the preference of the radiologist. Not all lesions are suitable for RFA because of a higher risk of complications. In particular, lesions approximating the liver capsule, lesions located high in the liver, and those occurring adjacent to other organs such as gallbladder or bowel, pose particular risks for RFA and are usually avoided except by the most experienced interventional radiologists.13 Laparoscopy or cushioning techniques, such as injection of dextrose, may be of use in these difficult circumstances to reduce the risk of complications. Proximity of tumours to large vessels also poses a problem with RFA, as the vessels act as a heat sink and reduce the effectiveness of the procedure in attaining complete tumour necrosis.

A number of commercial RF devices (comprising radiofrequency generator and needle electrode) are approved for use.14 One device comprises a needle with multiple hook-shaped expandable electrodes that are deployed within a tumour, and others, a single or cluster cooled-tip needle electrode that is inserted directly into the tumour. Variable rates of needle tract seeding have been reported following RFA, with increased risk seemingly related to prior biopsy, subcapsular location, poor tumour differentiation, high serum AFP levels and the use of cooled-tip needles. The overall rate of needle tract seeding seems to be around 0-1.4%.11,15,16

In the management of small HCC (<3cm), outcomes following RFA have been evaluated in randomised control trials against other ablative therapies. One, two and three-year survival rates of 90-97%, 82-91% and 63-81% respectively are reported with RFA.9 This excellent survival relates to high initial tumour control rates of 93-100%. Apart from improved survival and local disease control, RFA requires fewer treatment sessions and shorter hospitalisation than PEI. These excellent results have led some commentators to suggest that RFA, not surgical resection, should be the standard of care for patients with solitary lesions <2cm diameter.17

Other ablative techniques
A range of other ablative techniques are used with variable enthusiasm in the management of HCC. In general, they have limited applicability and are less supported by clinical trial evidence of efficacy than PEI and RFA. These techniques include cryoablation, microwave ablation, laser interstitial thermal therapy and extracorporeal high intensity focused ultrasound which is largely practiced in China.14,18

Non-ablative therapies

Transarterial chemoembolisation (TACE)
TACE is particularly suitable for patients with intermediate-stage (stage B) disease, multifocal tumours without vascular invasion and for patients with larger solitary lesions (>3cm diameter).

TACE involves femoral artery catheterisation with an angiographic micro-catheter, passage to the hepatic artery, and preferably, super-selective catheterisation of the feeding vessel to the target tumour. Currently there is no standardisation of technique, or of treatment schedules, with significant variability between publications and centres. Most protocols involve injection of an emulsion of lipiodol mixed with a chemotherapeutic agent such as cisplatin, doxorubicin or mitomycin. Following this injection, further embolisation may be performed, for instance with gelatine sponge particles or polyvinyl alcohol. Treatments may be repeated according to a strict treatment schedule (usually every 3-4 months), or based on evidence of ongoing tumour activity by dynamic imaging.

Recently, TACE with doxorubicin-loaded drug-eluting beads has been developed for treatment of patients with HCC,19 and compared with conventional TACE in a randomised-control trial.20 This technique enhances drug delivery to the tumour and reduces systemic exposure to the chemotherapeutic drug, avoiding high peak levels that are usually seen within 10 minutes of a conventional TACE procedure.19 Particularly in patients with more advanced liver disease, the use of drug-eluting beads seems to result in less direct liver toxicity and side-effects than conventional TACE.

TACE is of particular benefit in patients with intermediate-stage (stage B) HCC.21 These patients have preserved liver function (CTP A), and multinodular tumour without vascular invasion. The benefits of TACE compared to conservative treatment have been demonstrated in randomised-control trials, and confirmed in a meta-analysis of seven trials involving more than 500 subjects.22 Meta-analysis showed that TACE led to a significant improvement in two-year survival (OR, 0.53; 95% CI, 0.32–0.89; p=.017). Ultimately however, the majority of patients treated with TACE will eventually die of tumour progression. 

TACE has been regarded as being contraindicated in the presence of portal vein thrombosis (PVT), as there is concern that interruption to both portal venous and hepatic arterial flow would result in a large segment of hepatic necrosis. However, there are reports of successful TACE in the presence of PVT, even in quite large tumours. While half the patients in one report developed post-embolisation syndrome (abdominal pain, fever and nausea/vomiting), none required prolonged hospitalisation or additional treatment.23 No randomised control trial has been performed in patients with PVT and it is therefore unclear whether a survival benefit is obtained.

Combined therapies

Combined locoregional therapies are increasingly being utilised in the management of HCC, and several combinations have been evaluated in controlled clinical trials. Combined percutaneous alcohol injection and RFA has been evaluated in the treatment of HCC. In this procedure both a Chiba needle and an RFA electrode are placed inside the tumour, 100% alcohol is instilled, the Chiba needle withdrawn and RFA performed after approximately one minute. In a randomised controlled trial, the combined procedure showed significantly superior survival in patients with tumours of 3.1 to 5cm diameter (but not in those less than 3cm), and reduced local recurrence.24 The injection of alcohol prior to RFA appears to extend the ablation zone, and also delineates the tumour making the RFA procedure somewhat easier.

A number of retrospective studies report good outcomes following combined TACE and RFA,25,26 and in early-stage disease, combination therapy achieves overall (one, three and five year survival rates of 98, 94 and 75%) and disease-free survival (one, three and five year rates of 92%, 64%, and 27%), rates similar to those achieved with hepatectomy.27 Recently, TACE with doxorubicin-loaded drug-eluting beads combined with RFA (DEB-enhanced RF ablation) was shown to be safe and effective in a pilot study of 20 patients who had incomplete responses to standard RFA.28

Systemic therapies

Until recently, systemic chemotherapy for HCC was associated with no clear benefit, but significant toxicity, and no chemotherapy regimen could be recommended.29 Management of patients with advanced disease (stage C) was limited to supportive care, or enrolment in clinical trial protocols. In 2008 and 2009, the publication of positive results of two large randomised placebo-controlled Phase III trials of Sorafenib has dramatically changed the recommendations for patients with advanced HCC. This agent is now considered to be the standard of care in this patient group.30,31

Sorafenib is an orally active, multikinase inhibitor that inhibits cell surface tyrosine kinase receptors and downstream intracellular serine/threonine kinases, thereby inhibiting tumour cell proliferation and tumour angiogenesis.32 Monotherapy with oral sorafenib 400mg was investigated in patients with well-compensated liver disease, but advanced HCC in 602 randomised subjects (sorafenib n=299; placebo n= 303) in the SHARP trial and the Asia-Pacific trial (sorafenib n=150; placebo n=76).30,31 Despite differences in the study populations with subjects in the Asia-Pacific trial having more advanced disease, the findings were similar. Sorafenib led to significantly prolonged overall survival (SHARP trial: median survival 10.7 months v 7.9 months; Hazard Ratio (HR) 0.69 (0.55,0.87)) (Asia-Pacific trial: median survival 6.5 months v 4.2 months; HR 0.68 (0.50,0.93)) and delayed time to radiologic progression. Significantly more patients achieved disease control with sorafenib, defined as partial response or stable disease, although no patient achieved a complete response.

In the Phase III trials in advanced HCC, sorafenib was generally well tolerated. The main toxicities seen included diarrhoea, hand-foot skin reactions and weight loss. Most toxicities respond to dose reduction or brief periods of dose interruption. Hand-foot skin reactions seem to be more common in Asian than Caucasian patients. 

Sorafenib is now approved for use in advanced HCC in many countries and is available on PBS-authority in Australia for this indication. Clinical trials are underway to assess the benefits of sorafenib in patients with intermediate stage (stage B) disease treated with TACE, and as adjuvant therapy in patients undergoing hepatic resection or RFA (stage A disease).

Other molecular targeted therapies currently under clinical investigation as monotherapy or combination therapy in HCC include sunitinib, brivanib, bevacizumab, erlotinib, everolimus and sirolimus. 

Assessment of response to non-surgical treatment

Traditionally in oncology practice, response to therapy has been determined by application of the RECIST (Response Evaluation Criteria In Solid Tumours) criteria33 which relies on changes in measurements of the greatest dimension of all target lesions. This approach has been shown to be unreliable in a number of tumour types, including HCC,34 as commonly no change in the size of treated lesions is observed despite attainment of complete necrosis (with loco-regional therapies) or with tumour stasis (with cytostatic drugs). Currently, tumour response following treatment of HCC is determined by loss of arterial enhancement using dynamic techniques.35

Dynamic CT or MRI performed at regular intervals is therefore used to monitor response to loco-regional therapies. Persistent hypoattenuation on both arterial and portal phases of the scan in all treated lesions is required to determine a complete tumour response.10 Contrast-enhanced ultrasound is also very useful for monitoring the response of target lesions.36 Long-term follow-up requires assessment for local tumour recurrence, the development of new intrahepatic lesions and for the development of extrahepatic disease.

Serum tumour markers such as AFP and PIVKA-II (predominantly in Japan) are also useful in monitoring new tumours or assessing tumour recurrence following treatment of HCC, and are usually performed every 2-3 months.10,37 The identification of new response markers is an area of active investigation.


Ultimately, the prevention of HCC by eradication of chronic viral hepatitis will have the biggest impact on mortality from this malignancy. The introduction of screening programs in high-risk individuals will also lead to the identification of early stage disease and to a greater number of patients who are amenable to surgery, transplantation or ablative therapies. Currently however, the majority of patients present with non-resectable disease. Even for these patients, an increasing array of effective locoregional and systemic therapies are now available. Only patients with terminal disease, poor liver function or extensive HCC, have no effective treatment options. It is becoming increasingly important that all patients with HCC are evaluated in centres with multidisciplinary expertise, so that the most appropriate and effective therapies can be offered.


1. Perry JF, Charlton B, Koorey DJ, Waugh R, Gallagher J, Crawford M, et al. Outcome of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma referred to a tertiary centre with availability of multiple treatment options including cadaveric liver transplantation. Liver Int. 2007;27(9):1240-8.

2. Bruix J, Sherman M. Management of hepatocellular carcinoma. Hepatology. 2005;42(5):1208-36.

3. Llovet JM, Di Bisceglie AM, Bruix J, Kramer BS, Lencioni R, Zhu AX, et al. Design and endpoints of clinical trials in hepatocellular carcinoma. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2008;100(10):698-711.

4. Liver (including intrahepatic bile ducts). In: Greene FL, Page DL, Fleming ID, et al, editors. American Joint Committee on Cancer Staging Manual. New York, N.Y: Springer-Verlag; 2002:131-44.

5. Perry JF, Poustchi H, George J, Farrell GC, McCaughan GW, Strasser SI. Current approaches to the diagnosis and management of hepatocellular carcinoma. Clin Exp Med. 2005;5(1):1-13.

6. Livraghi T, Giorgio A, Marin G, Salmi A, de Sio I, Bolondi L, et al. Hepatocellular carcinoma and cirrhosis in 746 patients: long-term results of percutaneous ethanol injection. Radiology. 1995;197(1):101-8.

7. Stigliano R, Marelli L, Yu D, Davies N, Patch D, Burroughs AK. Seeding following percutaneous diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for hepatocellular carcinoma. What is the risk and the outcome? Seeding risk for percutaneous approach of HCC. Cancer Treat Rev. 2007;33(5):437-47.

8. Shiina S, Teratani T, Obi S, Hamamura K, Koike Y, Omata M. Non-surgical treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma: from percutaneous ethanol injection therapy and percutaneous microwave coagulation therapy to radiofrequency ablation. Oncology. 2002;62(Suppl 1):64-8.

9. Cho YK, Kim JK, Kim MY, Rhim H, Han JK. Systematic review of randomized trials for hepatocellular carcinoma treated with percutaneous ablation therapies. Hepatology. 2009;49(2):453-9.

10. Orlando A, Leandro G, Olivo M, Andriulli A, Cottone M. Radiofrequency thermal ablation vs. percutaneous ethanol injection for small hepatocellular carcinoma in cirrhosis: meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Gastroenterol. 2009;104(2):514-24.

11. Lau WY, Lai EC. The current role of radiofrequency ablation in the management of hepatocellular carcinoma: a systematic review. Ann Surg. 2009;249(1):20-5.

12. Lencioni R, Crocetti L. A critical appraisal of the literature on local ablative therapies for hepatocellular carcinoma. Clin Liver Dis. 2005 May;9(2):301-14, viii.

13. Teratani T, Yoshida H, Shiina S, Obi S, Sato S, Tateishi R, et al. Radiofrequency ablation for hepatocellular carcinoma in so-called high-risk locations. Hepatology. 2006;43(5):1101-8.

14. Callstrom MR, Charboneau JW. Technologies for ablation of hepatocellular carcinoma. Gastroenterology. 2008;134(7):1831-5.

15. Llovet JM, Vilana R, Bru C, Bianchi L, Salmeron JM, Boix L, et al. Increased risk of tumor seeding after percutaneous radiofrequency ablation for single hepatocellular carcinoma. Hepatology. 2001;33(5):1124-9.

16. Livraghi T, Lazzaroni S, Meloni F, Solbiati L. Risk of tumour seeding after percutaneous radiofrequency ablation for hepatocellular carcinoma. Br J Surg. 2005;92(7):856-8.

17. Livraghi T, Meloni F, Di Stasi M, Rolle E, Solbiati L, Tinelli C, et al. Sustained complete response and complications rates after radiofrequency ablation of very early hepatocellular carcinoma in cirrhosis: Is resection still the treatment of choice? Hepatology. 2008;47(1):82-9.

18. Wu F, Wang ZB, Chen WZ, Zhu H, Bai J, Zou JZ, et al. Extracorporeal high intensity focused ultrasound ablation in the treatment of patients with large hepatocellular carcinoma. Ann Surg Oncol. 2004;11(12):1061-9.

19. Varela M, Real MI, Burrel M, Forner A, Sala M, Brunet M, et al. Chemoembolization of hepatocellular carcinoma with drug eluting beads: efficacy and doxorubicin pharmacokinetics. J Hepatol. 2007;46(3):474-81.

20. Lencioni R. A randomised phase II trial of a drug-eluting bead in the treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma by transcatheter arterial chemoembolisation. Hepatol Int. 2009;3:67A.

21. Bruix J, Sala M, Llovet JM. Chemoembolization for hepatocellular carcinoma. Gastroenterology. 2004;127(5 Suppl 1):S179-88.

22. Llovet JM, Bruix J. Systematic review of randomized trials for unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma: Chemoembolization improves survival. Hepatology. 2003;37(2):429-42.

23. Georgiades CS, Hong K, D’Angelo M, Geschwind JF. Safety and efficacy of transarterial chemoembolization in patients with unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma and portal vein thrombosis. J Vasc Interv Radiol. 2005;16(12):1653-9.

24. Zhang YJ, Liang HH, Chen MS, Guo RP, Li JQ, Zheng Y, et al. Hepatocellular carcinoma treated with radiofrequency ablation with or without ethanol injection: a prospective randomized trial. Radiology. 2007;244(2):599-607.

25. Takaki H, Yamakado K, Uraki J, Nakatsuka A, Fuke H, Yamamoto N, et al. Radiofrequency ablation combined with chemoembolization for the treatment of hepatocellular carcinomas larger than 5 cm. J Vasc Interv Radiol. 2009;20(2):217-24.

26. Veltri A, Moretto P, Doriguzzi A, Pagano E, Carrara G, Gandini G. Radiofrequency thermal ablation (RFA) after transarterial chemoembolization (TACE) as a combined therapy for unresectable non-early hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Eur Radiol. 2006;16(3):661-9.

27. Yamakado K, Nakatsuka A, Takaki H, Yokoi H, Usui M, Sakurai H, et al. Early-stage hepatocellular carcinoma: radiofrequency ablation combined with chemoembolization versus hepatectomy. Radiology. 2008;247(1):260-6.

28. Lencioni R, Crocetti L, Petruzzi P, Vignali C, Bozzi E, Della Pina C, et al. Doxorubicin-eluting bead-enhanced radiofrequency ablation of hepatocellular carcinoma: a pilot clinical study. J Hepatol. 2008;49(2):217-22.

29. Di Maio M, De Maio E, Perrone F, Pignata S, Daniele B. Hepatocellular carcinoma: systemic treatments. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2002;35(5 Suppl 2):S109-14.

30. Llovet JM, Ricci S, Mazzaferro V, Hilgard P, Gane E, Blanc JF, et al. Sorafenib in advanced hepatocellular carcinoma. N Engl J Med. 2008;359(4):378-90.

31. Cheng AL, Kang YK, Chen Z, Tsao CJ, Qin S, Kim JS, et al. Efficacy and safety of sorafenib in patients in the Asia-Pacific region with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma: a phase III randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet Oncol. 2009;10(1):25-34.

32. Keating GM, Santoro A. Sorafenib: a review of its use in advanced hepatocellular carcinoma. Drugs. 2009;69(2):223-40.

33. Therasse P, Arbuck SG, Eisenhauer EA, Wanders J, Kaplan RS, Rubinstein L, et al. New guidelines to evaluate the response to treatment in solid tumors. European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer, National Cancer Institute of the United States, National Cancer Institute of Canada. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2000;92(3):205-16.

34. Forner A, Ayuso C, Varela M, Rimola J, Hessheimer AJ, de Lope CR, et al. Evaluation of tumor response after locoregional therapies in hepatocellular carcinoma: are response evaluation criteria in solid tumors reliable? Cancer. 2009;115(3):616-23.

35. Bruix J, Sherman M, Llovet JM, Beaugrand M, Lencioni R, Burroughs AK, et al. Clinical management of hepatocellular carcinoma. Conclusions of the Barcelona-2000 EASL conference. European Association for the Study of the Liver. J Hepatol. 2001;35(3):421-30.

36. Leen E, Kumar S, Khan SA, Low G, Ong KO, Tait P, et al. Contrast-enhanced 3D ultrasound in the radiofrequency ablation of liver tumors. World J Gastroenterol. 2009;15(3):289-99.

37. Takahashi S, Kudo M, Chung H, Inoue T, Ishikawa E, Kitai S, et al. PIVKA-II is the best prognostic predictor in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma after radiofrequency ablation therapy. Oncology. 2008;75 Suppl 1:91-8.

Be the first to know when a new issue is online. Subscribe today.