Caring Currents

New Hope for Liver Cancer

Last updated: Apr 15, 2009

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Image by sun dazed used under the creative commons attribution share alike license.

Liver tumors don't have to be a death sentence. This is the read-between-the-lines conclusion emerging from several studies published in the past couple of months showing that radical new therapies involving tiny micro-beads have the potential to shut down liver tumor growth.

When cancer invades the liver, there's rarely much good news doctors can give patients and families. Like many of you, I know what it's like to listen in tears as a doctor explains that once cancer spreads to the liver, it causes a gradual systemic shutdown that's ultimately fatal. (Of course, there are miraculous exceptions, as you can see from the inspirational stories on the metastatic liver cancer blog.)

But a radical new therapy involving tiny, chemo-soaked beads appears to have the potential to halt liver tumors in their tracks. The method is a version of a therapy called TACE, which is short for transarterial chemoembolization. There are several variations of TACE, all of which involve cutting off the blood supply to liver tumors by blocking the arteries and blood vessels that feed the tumor

These newest studies excited doctors because they used tiny micro-beads soaked in the chemo drug doxorubicin. The beads are tiny enough to get into very small blood vessels, cutting off blood supply from all sides as well as allowing the drug to target tumors at close range rather than going throughout the body.

Although the best way to treat liver tumors is to remove them surgically, only one out of every three liver cancer patients is a candidate for surgery; too often the tumor is too big or located in too risky an area. For those in this situation, TACE may be a lifesaver.

Two studies at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Tampa, Florida, followed cancer patients for two years; in one study 10 of 11 patients were alive after two years. In the other -- which followed colorectal cancer patients with cancer that had spread to their livers -- 10 of 13 survived more than two years. There were also two Italian studies published this spring that used a different brand of bead but had similar results. Compare that with the recovery rate for traditional treatment: only one fourth of all liver cancer patients typically survive two years.

"There is definitely a chance of cancer cure with this procedure beyond just palliation," said Glenn Stambo, vascular and interventional radiologist at St. Joseph's Hospital. Let's put it this way; it's not often we hear researchers speak in these terms.

Even better, the TACE beads didn't cause the severe systemic side effects patients usually have to endure with chemotherapy.

And these aren't the only beads being studied; micro-beads containing radioactive isotopes have also shown potential to halt liver tumor growth. A clinical trial currently in progress at Jefferson University's Kimmel Cancer Center in Philadelphia is studying SIR-Spheres microspheres, tiny beads containing a radioactive isotope instead of chemotherapy.

A number of cancer centers are pioneering treatment with both options, since each has advantages depending on the patient's particular situation.

If someone you love has cancer that either started in or has spread to the liver, ask your oncologist about chemoembolization with micro-beads, and if she doesn't seem familiar with these new treatment options, get a second opinion.