Catheter-based transarterial therapies for hepatocellular cancer

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ABSTRACTAs the prevalence of liver cancer increases, so does the demand for nonsurgical, minimally invasive alternatives to surgery, since many patients have tumors that cannot be surgically resected. Catheter-based hepatic arterial procedures may be an option in patients with primary and metastatic liver cancer. The authors describe four catheter-based hepatic arterial procedures and outline the management of potential complications during the immediate postprocedural period.


  • Bland embolization carries a risk of pulmonary embolism if there is shunting between the pulmonary and hepatic circulation via the hepatic vein. Technetium-99m macro-aggregated albumin scanning is done before the procedure to assess the risk.
  • Postembolization syndrome—characterized by low-grade fever, mild leukocytosis, and pain—is common after chemoembolization. Therefore, after the procedure, the patient is admitted to the hospital overnight for monitoring and control of symptoms such as pain and nausea.
  • Puncture-site complications include hematoma, pseudo-aneurysm, infection, nerve damage, and arterial thrombosis. Systemic complications include postembolization syndrome, tumor lysis syndrome, hypersensitivity reactions, and contrast-induced nephropathy.



Liver cancer is increasing in prevalence; from 2000 to 2010, the prevalence increased from 7.1 per 100,000 to 8.4 per 100,000 people.1 This increase is due in part to an increase in chronic liver diseases such as hepatitis B and C and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.2 In addition, liver metastases, especially from colorectal cancer and breast cancer, are also on the rise worldwide. More than 60% of patients with colorectal cancer will have a liver metastasis at some point in the course of their disease.

However, only 10% to 15% of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma are candidates for surgical resection.3,4 And for patients who are not surgical candidates, there are currently no accepted guidelines on treatment.5 Treatment of metastatic liver cancer has consisted mainly of systemic chemotherapy, but if standard treatments fail, other options need to be considered.

A number of minimally invasive treatments are available for primary and metastatic liver cancer.6 These treatments are for the most part palliative, but in rare instances they are curative. They can be divided into percutaneous imaging-guided therapy (eg, radiofrequency ablation, microwave ablation) and four catheter-based transarterial therapies:

  • Bland embolization
  • Chemoembolization
  • Chemoembolization with drug-eluting microspheres
  • Yttrium-90 radioembolization.

In this article, we focus only on the four catheter-based transarterial therapies, providing a brief description of each and a discussion of potential postprocedural complications and the key elements of postprocedural care.

The rationale for catheter-based transarterial therapy

Primary and metastatic liver malignancies depend mainly on the hepatic arterial blood supply for their survival and growth, whereas normal liver tissue is supplied mainly by the portal vein. Therapy applied through the hepatic arterial system is distributed directly to malignant tissue and spares healthy liver tissue. (Note: The leg is the route of access for all catheter-based transarterial therapies.)


In transarterial bland embolization, tiny spheres of a neutral (ie, bland) material are injected into the distal branches of the arteries that supply the tumor. These microemboli, 45 to 150 µm in diameter,7 permanently occlude the blood vessels.

Bland embolization carries a risk of pulmonary embolism if there is shunting between the pulmonary and hepatic circulation via the hepatic vein.8,9 Fortunately, this serious complication is rare. Technetium-99m macroaggregated albumin (Tc-99m MAA) scanning is done before the procedure to assess the risk.

Posttreatment care and follow-up

Patients require follow-up with contrast-enhanced computed tomography (CT) 6 to 8 weeks after the procedure to evaluate tumor regression.

Further treatment

If follow-up CT shows that the lesion or lesions have not regressed or have increased in size, the embolization procedure can be repeated about 12 weeks after the initial treatment. The most likely cause of a poor response to therapy is failure to adequately identify all tumor-supplying vessels.10


Transarterial chemoembolization targets the blood supply of the tumor with a combination of chemotherapeutic drugs and an embolizing agent. Standard chemotherapy agents used include doxorubicin, cisplatin, and mitomycin-C. A microcatheter is advanced into the vessel supplying the tumor, and the combination drug is injected as close to the tumor as possible.11

Transarterial chemoembolization is the most commonly performed hepatic artery-directed therapy for liver cancer. It has been used to treat solitary tumors as well as multifocal disease. It allows for maximum embolization potential while preserving liver function.

Posttreatment care and follow-up

Postembolization syndrome, characterized by low-grade fever, mild leukocytosis, and pain, is common after transarterial chemoembolization. Therefore, the patient is usually admitted to the hospital overnight for monitoring and control of symptoms such as pain and nausea. Mild abdominal pain is common and should resolve within several days; severe abdominal pain should be evaluated, as chemical and ischemic cholecystitis have been reported. Severe abdominal pain also raises concern for possible tumor rupture or liver infarction.

At discharge after chemoembolization, patients are instructed to report high fever, jaundice, or abdominal swelling

At the time of discharge, patients should be instructed to contact their clinician if they experience high fever, jaundice, or abdominal swelling. Liver function testing is not recommended within 7 to 10 days of treatment, as the expected rise in aminotransferase levels could prompt an unnecessary workup. Barring additional complications, patients should be seen in the office 2 weeks after the procedure.12

Lesions should be followed by serial contrast-enhanced CT to determine response to therapy. The current recommendation for stable patients is CT every 3 months for 2 years, and then every 6 months until active disease recurs.13

Safety concerns

A rare but serious concern after this procedure is fulminant hepatic failure, which has a high death rate. It has been reported in fewer than 1% of patients. Less severe complications include liver failure and infection.13

Further treatment

Patients with multifocal disease may require further treatment, usually 4 to 6 weeks after the initial procedure. If a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt is already in place, the patient can undergo chemoembolization as long as liver function is preserved. However, these patients generally have a poorer prognosis.


In transarterial chemoembolization with drug-eluting microspheres, beads loaded with chemotherapeutic drugs provide controlled delivery, resulting in both ischemia of the tumor and slow release of chemotherapy.

Several types of beads are currently available, with different degrees of affinity for chemotherapy agents. An advantage of the beads is that they can be used in patients with tumors that show aggressive shunting or in tumors that have vascular invasion. The technique for delivering the beads is similar to that used in standard chemoembolization.14

Posttreatment care and follow-up

Postembolization syndrome is common. Treatment usually consists of hydration and control of pain and nausea. Follow-up includes serial CT to evaluate tumor response.

Safety concerns

Overall, this procedure is safe. A phase 1 and 2 trial15 showed adverse effects similar to those seen in chemoembolization. The most common adverse effect was a transient increase in liver enzymes. Serious complications such as tumor rupture, spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, and liver failure were rare.


In yttrium-90 radioembolization, radioactive microspheres are injected into the hepatic arterial supply. The procedure involves careful planning and is usually completed in stages.

The first stage involves angiography to map the hepatic vascular anatomy, as well as prophylactic embolization to protect against unintended delivery of the radioactive drug to vessels of the gastrointestinal tract (such as a branch of the hepatic artery that may supply the duodenum), causing tissue necrosis. Another reason for mapping is to look for any potential shunt between the tumor’s blood supply and the lung16,17 and thus prevent pulmonary embolism from the embolization procedure. The gastric mucosa and the salivary glands are also studied, as isolated gastric mucosal uptake indicates gastrointestinal vascular shunting.

The mapping stage involves injecting radioactive particles of technetium-99m microaggregated albumin, which are close in size to the yttrium-90 particles used during the actual procedure. The dose injected is usually 4 to 5 mCi (much lower than the typical tumor-therapy dose of 100–120 Gy), and imaging is done with either planar or single-photon emission CT. The patient is usually admitted for overnight observation after angiography.

In the second stage, 1 or 2 weeks later, the patient undergoes injection of the radiopharmaceuticals into the hepatic artery supplying the tumor. If disease burden is high or there is bilobar disease, the treatment is repeated in another 6 to 8 weeks. After the procedure, the patient is admitted to the hospital for observation by an inpatient team.

Posttreatment care and follow-up

The major concern after yttrium-90 radioembolization is reflux of the microspheres through unrecognized gastrointestinal channels,18 particularly into the mucosa of the stomach and proximal duodenum, causing the formation of nonhealing ulcers, which can cause major morbidity and even death. Antiulcer medications can be started immediately after the procedure.

Postembolization syndrome is frequently seen, and the fever usually responds to acet­a­minophen. Nausea and vomiting can be managed conservatively.19

The patient returns for a follow-up visit within 4 to 6 weeks of the injection procedure, mainly for assessment of liver function. A transient increase in liver enzymes and tumor markers may be seen at this time. A massive increase in liver enzyme levels should be investigated further.

Safety concerns

The postprocedural radiation exposure from the patient is within the acceptable safety range; therefore, no special precautions are necessary. However, since resin spheres are excreted in the urine, precautions are needed for urine disposal during the first 24 hours.20,21

Further treatments

If there is multifocal disease or a poor response to the initial treatment, a second session can be done 6 to 8 weeks after the first one. Before the second session, the liver tumor is imaged.22 For hepatocellular carcinoma, imaging may show shrinkage and necrosis of the tumor. For metastatic tumors, this imaging is important as it may show either failure or progression of disease.23 For this reason, functional imaging such as positron-emission tomography is important as it may show the extrahepatic spread of tumor, thereby halting further treatment. A complete blood cell count may also be done at 30 days to look for radiation-related cytopenia. A scrupulous log of the radiation dose received by the patient should be maintained.

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