Chemo Infusion and Chemoembolization of Liver (cont.)

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How does chemoembolization differ from arterial chemotherapy infusion?

Both techniques takes advantage of the fact that liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma, HCC) is a very vascular (contains many blood vessels) tumor and gets its blood supply exclusively from the branches of the hepatic artery. Chemoembolization (TACE) is similar to intra-arterial infusion of chemotherapy. But in TACE, there is the additional step of blocking (embolizing) the small blood vessels with different types of compounds, such as gelfoam or even small metal coils.

How does chemoembolization compare with arterial chemotherapy infusion?

Thus, TACE has the advantages of exposing the tumor to high concentrations of chemotherapy and confining the agents locally since they are not carried away by the blood stream. At the same time, this technique deprives the tumor of its needed blood supply, which can result in the damage or death of the tumor cells.

The type and frequency of complications of TACE and intra-arterial chemotherapy are similar. The potential disadvantage of TACE is that blocking the feeding vessels to the tumor(s) may make future attempts at intra-arterial infusions impossible. Moreover, so far, there are no head-to-head studies directly comparing the effectiveness of intra-arterial infusion versus chemoembolization.

What about mixing the chemotherapy with lipiodol?

In Japan, the chemotherapeutic agents are mixed with lipiodol. The idea is that since the tumor cells preferentially take up lipiodol, they would likewise take up the chemotherapy. This Japanese technique has not yet been validated in head-to-head comparisons with conventional TACE.

What are the benefits of TACE?

In one large study involving several institutions in Italy, chemoembolization did not seem to be beneficial. Patients who did not undergo TACE lived as long as patients who received TACE, even though the tumors were more likely to shrink in size in patients who were treated. Does this mean that TACE or intra-arterial chemotherapy does not work? Maybe, maybe not.

Studies in Japan, however, have shown that TACE can downstage HCC. In other words, the tumors shrank enough to lower (improve) the stage of the cancer. From the practical point of view, shrinking the tumor creates the option for surgery in some of these patients. Otherwise, these patients had tumors that were not operable (eligible for operation) because of the initial large size of their tumors. More importantly, these same studies showed an improvement in survival in patients whose tumors became considerably smaller. In the U.S., trials are underway to see whether doing TACE before liver transplantation increases patient survival as compared to liver transplantation without TACE.

It is safe to say that TACE or intra-arterial chemoinfusion are palliative treatment options for HCC. This means that these procedures can provide relief or make the disease less severe. However, they are not curative (do not result in a cure). Fewer than 50% of patients will have some shrinkage in tumor size. Further, they can be used only in patients with relatively preserved liver function. The reason for this is that these procedures can lead to liver failure in individuals with poor liver function.

Medically reviewed by Jay B. Zatzkin, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Medical Oncology


"Nonsurgical therapies for localized hepatocellular carcinoma: Transarterial embolization, radiotherapy, and radioembolization"

Previous contributing editor: Leslie J. Schoenfield, MD, PhD

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/11/2014

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