Liver transplantation has the opportunity to cure both localized HCC as well as underlying liver cirrhosis. Donor organ shortage has led to the implementation of the Milan criteria as a way to identify patients whose tumor burden is low enough to predict a good outcome. Downstaging liver cancer to fit within Milan criteria has been controversial.
Tabrizian and colleagues undertook a retrospective cohort analysis of 2645 adult patients with HCC who underwent liver transplant. Out of those, 2122 patients always had disease that was within the Milan criteria, 341 patients had HCC that was downstaged to fit within the Milan criteria, and 182 patients had HCC that was outside the Milan criteria at the time of liver transplantation. The authors report that the 10-year post-transplant survival and recurrence rates were 61.5% and 13.3%, respectively, in those always within the Milan criteria, 52.1% and 20.6% among those whose disease was downstaged, and 43.3% and 41.1% in those whose disease was never downstaged. Characteristics that predicted recurrence after downstaging were tumor size > 7 cm at diagnosis (odds ratio [OR] 2.62; 95% CI 1.20-5.75; P = .02), more than three tumors at diagnosis (OR 2.34; 95% CI 1.22-4.50; P = .01), and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) response ≥ 20 ng/mL with < 50% improvement from maximum AFP before transplantation (OR 1.99; 95% CI 1.14-3.46; P = .02). Additionally, patients with recurrent tumors that were surgically resected had improved 5-year post-recurrence survival (31.6% vs 7.3%; P < .001). The conclusion was that the national downstaging policies were valid and should continue.
For patients who have unresectable HCC, systemic therapy is the mainstay of treatment. Peng and colleagues reported the results of the LAUNCH phase 3 clinical trial that randomized patients to receive lenvatinib alone or lenvatinib plus transarterial chemoembolization (TACE). Out of 338 patients, 170 received lenvatinib plus TACE. Unsurprisingly, the response rate was higher with the combination (54.1% vs 25.0%; P < .001); however, so was the median overall survival (17.8 vs 11.5 months; hazard ratio 0.45; P < .001), and median progression-free survival (10.6 vs 6.4 months; hazard ratio 0.43; P < .001). The investigators concluded that the addition of TACE to lenvatinib had manageable toxicities, improved clinical outcomes, and could be used as a potential first-line treatment for some patients with unresectable HCC.
Finally, in patients whose HCC progressed after a single TACE treatment, the question remains whether repeated TACE is worthwhile. Zhao and colleagues retrospectively reviewed the outcomes of 94 patients who underwent at least one TACE. Of these, 28 (29.8%) had a response to the first TACE, and these patients tended to have a longer OS compared with nonresponders (36.7 vs 21.5 months; P = .071). Of the 43 initial nonresponders who underwent a second TACE, 15 of 43 (34.9%) achieved a response and had an improved median overall survival (47.8 v. 13.6 months; P = .01), suggesting that repeat TACE may offer a benefit to some patients, even after no response to the initial treatment.