Efficacy of combination treatment modalities for intermediate and advanced hepatocellular carcinoma: intra-arterial therapies, sorafenib and novel small molecules

Julio A. Gutierrez, Robert G. Gish


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a growing epidemic with a high mortality rate and clear need for improved therapies. In patients with Barcelona-Clinic Liver Cancer (BCLC) B and C, treatment with transarterial chemoembolization (TACE) has been the gold standard in therapy as it delays progression; however, recurrence proves common. In the US, transarterial bead embolization (TABE) has uniformly replaced TACE. With this limited armamentarium, there is need for a shift to novel strategies combining different modalities to further improve patient outcomes. Historically, HCC drug discovery concentrated on common features of HCC including its highly vascular nature and dependence on growth factors (GFs). The multikinase inhibitor sorafenib acts on angiogenesis via modulation of vascular endothelial GF expression and was the first step toward systemic targeted therapy against HCC. Sorafenib has provided clinicians with a tool to modestly improve survival by 2-6 months or longer. Despite the progress in survival provided by TACE, TABE and sorafenib independently, rigorous combination clinical trials do not consistently show significant improvement over TACE/TABE monotherapy. Other novel small molecules targeting angiogenesis such as brivanib, linifanib and everolimus have failed or are in development. Anti-HCV treatment became more feasible with the novel direct-acting antiviral agents; with the much higher and more durable treatment responses that they provide, the risk of HCC progression may be reduced. The most effective strategies in developing combination therapies are hampered by the complexities of FDA testing along with intellectual property and economic issues. To achieve significant progress, more basic science studies are necessary to help understand which novel molecules demonstrate the greatest synergy. Individual patient genomic profiling and biomarkers may help guide therapy and improve the clinician’s ability to tailor treatment and to know when it could be appropriate to combine systemic therapy with transarterial embolization. Most importantly, partnerships that facilitate testing of novel therapies in intelligently designed trials based on preclinical pharmacokinetics must be established.