Liver Cancer Found in Hepatitis C Patients on New Antivirals

Kate Johnson

April 15, 2016

BARCELONA, Spain — In a surprising number of patients with hepatitis C and cirrhosis, hepatocellular carcinoma develops within weeks of starting treatment with direct-acting antivirals, new research suggests.

"I do not think that direct-acting antivirals are directly responsible," said lead investigator Stefano Brillanti, MD, from the University of Bologna, Italy.

"The hypothesis is that immune surveillance may be reduced too rapidly," he told Medscape Medical News. "You have an immediate drop in viremia, but also attenuation of inflammation. I think inflammation is a bad thing in terms of hepatitis progression, but it may be a good thing in terms of controlling cancer."

The study by Dr Brillanti's team, presented here at the International Liver Congress 2016, suggests that patients with hepatitis C should be closely monitored after treatment with direct-acting antivirals. Two days earlier, a study conducted by a team from the University of Barcelona in Spain suggested the same thing (J Hepatol. Published online April 12, 2016).

Both studies indicate that patients with a history of hepatocellular carcinoma have the highest risk of developing a tumor after direct-acting antiviral therapy, but new diagnoses were also reported.

The EMA has extended the scope of its review of the six direct-acting antivirals approved for use in the European Union for the treatment of chronic hepatitis  C infection to include the risk for early liver cancer recurrence, the agency reported.

Tumor Risk

"Patients with previous hepatocellular carcinoma are, of course, at risk of recurrence anyway," Dr Brillanti said. "A 30% rate over 3 years from initial surgery or ablation is normal. What was surprising to us was that we were observing 4 cm lesions after 12 weeks."

The retrospective cohort study involved 344 consecutive patients with hepatitis C and cirrhosis who were treated with one or two direct-acting antivirals and followed for 24 weeks after therapy. Median age was 63 years.

In this cohort, 237 patients were infected with hepatitis C genotype 1, 191 had received previous antiviral treatment, and 59 had been successfully treated for hepatocellular carcinoma.

Contrast-enhanced ultrasonography and CT scans or MRIs were performed at baseline to exclude active hepatocellular carcinoma, and then again 12 and 24 weeks after treatment.

During the follow-up period, 26 of the 344 patients (7.6%) were diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma. This included 17 of the 59 patients previously treated for hepatocellular carcinoma, and nine of the 285 patients (3.2%) with no history of carcinoma.

There was no association between recurrence and hepatitis C genotype, direct-acting antiviral regimen, or treatment response for patients who did not develop hepatocellular carcinoma or for those who did. The sustained viral response rate at 12 weeks was 89% in the two groups.

For patients with a history of hepatocellular carcinoma, those who developed a recurrence were significantly younger than those who did not (56 vs 73 years), were more frequently treatment-experienced (88.2% vs 61.9%), and had more advanced liver fibrosis at baseline.

More patients who developed hepatocellular carcinoma during the follow-up period, regardless of history, had advanced cirrhosis than those who did not, indicated by a Child-Pugh class B score (26.9% vs 10.1%; P =.02). They also had more liver stiffness, indicated by a measure above 21.3 Kpa (61.5% vs 31.8%; P = .005), and fewer platelets at baseline (102.3 vs 124.4 × 1000/mm³; P = .02).

Second Study

In the Spanish study, all 58 hepatitis C patients had a history of hepatocellular carcinoma (with complete radiologic response), and all but three were cirrhotic at the start of direct-acting antiviral therapy. After a median follow-up of 5.7 months, the rate of tumor recurrence was 27.6%, with a median time to recurrence of 3.5 months. The sustained viral response rate at 12 weeks was 97.5%.

In their publication, the Spanish authors note that these findings "raise a concern about the benefits" of direct-acting antiviral therapy in the subgroup of hepatitis C patients with a history of hepatocellular carcinoma. Although the therapies "offer a major hope for current and future patients, we may face a drawback that may change these predictions in specific groups of patients," they point out.

Dr Brillanti said he is less concerned. "Clones of the hepatocellular carcinoma were present before the therapy," he pointed out, suggesting that direct-acting antivirals simply accelerated their inevitable progression. Either way, he said, an increased risk for hepatocellular carcinoma should not deter clinicians or patients from pursuing treatment with direct-acting antivirals when it is needed.

"This is a different cancer than elsewhere in oncology — it is a cancer within an advanced chronic disease — so the prognosis, the life expectancy, is related not only to the liver cancer but also to the liver disease and liver function," he explained. "If you don't treat these patients and ameliorate their liver function, and if hepatocellular carcinoma occurs, you have no chance of curing them. But if you ameliorate liver function and they develop hepatocellular carcinoma, you can cure it better because their improved liver function will allow an ablation."

This finding is "quite striking and unexpected, but we have to be cautious," said Laurent Castera, MD, PhD, from Hôpital Beaujon in Clichy, France, who is vice-secretary of the European Association for the Study of the Liver, and was not involved with the research.

"It is potentially worrying, but these are retrospective studies, with possible referral bias, and no long-term follow-up," he told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Brillanti reports receiving research grants from Gilead Sciences and being on the advisory board for Janssen and Gilead Sciences. Dr Castera reports serving on the speaker's bureau for Echosens.

International Liver Congress (ILC) 2016: Abstract LBP506. Presented April 14, 2016.

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