Liver Cancer Risk Lingers Even After HCV Eradication

Neil Osterweil

November 17, 2021

Although the risk for liver cancer diminishes for patients with hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections for whom virus is eliminated with direct-acting antiviral (DAA) drugs, these patients are not out of the woods, and those who do not have a sustained viral response (SVR) are at substantially higher risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), results of a large study show.

Among the patients with liver cirrhosis from HCV infections treated at 30 centers in Italy, a large percentage had an SVR after treatment with DAA drugs. Only a small percentage of this group subsequently developed HCC.

In contrast, not having an SVR was associated with a more than sevenfold higher risk for liver cancer, said Loreta A. Kondili, MD, PhD, from the Center for Global Health at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, in Rome, Italy, during a presentation of the findings at The Liver Meeting 2021: American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD), held online.

"Failure to achieve SVR after DAA treatment is strongly associated with the probability of HCC development. Older age, [HCV] genotype 3, and low platelet counts and albumin levels are independent factors of HCC development despite viral eradication," she said.

Cohort Study

The study findings come from the PITER Cohort Study, a prospective, multicenter observational study of a representative sample of patients with HCV.

Kondili and colleagues assessed the medium- and long-term effects of DAA therapy on HCC rates among patients with HCV-induced liver cirrhosis. Patients who had undergone a liver transplant or who had been previously diagnosed with HCC were excluded.

The investigators identified a total of 2214 DAA-treated patients, of whom 149 (6.7%) developed de novo HCC after a median follow-up of 30 months.

From the total group, 2064 (93%) patients had an SVR, 119 of whom (5.8%) developed HCC. Of these patients who developed HCC, 80% were diagnosed with stage B or C disease in accordance with the Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer staging system.

For the remaining 150 patients who did not have an SVR, 30 (20%) developed de novo HCC, a difference that translated into an adjusted hazard ratio (aHR) for HCC of 7.38 (P < .01).

The time from the end of DAA therapy to a diagnosis of HCC was shorter for patients who did not have an SVR. For these patients, the 2-year HCC-free survival rate was 81%, compared with 98% for patients who had an SVR (P < .001).

As reported by Kondili, among patients who achieved an SVR, the variables significantly associated with HCC risk included older age (aHR, 1.06), platelet counts greater than the reference limit of 150,000 μL (aHR, 2.43), albumin levels >3.5 g/dL (aHR, 2.36), and diabetes (aHR, 1.53; all these variables were significant by confidence intervals).

In all, 26% of these patients died during the follow-up period, and 7.6% underwent liver transplant.

Of the patients still alive at the end of the follow-up period, 38% had active HCC.

Long-term Follow-up Required

"It's useful to think of hepatitis C as a viral infection on one hand [and] a liver disease on the other," commented Raymond T. Chung, MD, director of the Hepatology and Liver Center and vice chief of gastroenterology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.

"In terms of thinking of elimination, we can eradicate the virus in most patients with virtually 100% success with antivirals. This has given us a false sense of comfort that it's a 'one and done' process, and patients can more or less enjoy the rest of their lives free of hepatitis C," he said.

Chung, who was not involved in the study, emphasized that despite the elimination of the virus, patients may still have significant liver fibrosis or cirrhosis. It is imperative that these patients be monitored for signs of cancer, he said.

"This is what's important about staging patients and understanding how severe their liver disease is, because if there is advanced fibrosis, bridging fibrosis, or cirrhosis, these are patients who are going to require long-term oncology care. Their infectious disease is eliminated, but the liver disease remains," he said.

Chung also noted that rates of liver cancer, decompensation, and liver failure are higher among patients with untreated HCV than among patients whose HCV has been eradicated or suppressed with drug treatment. In addition, patients with untreated HCV are at greater risk of requiring transplant than are patients with HCV that was treated, and there remains a residual cancer risk for patients who become HCV seronegative.

The study was funded by the Italian Ministry of Health. Kondili has financial relationships with Gilead Science and AbbVie. Chung reported no relevant financial relationships.

The Liver Meeting 2021: American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD): Abstract 99. Presented November 14, 2021.

Neil Osterweil, an award-winning medical journalist, is a long-standing and frequent contributor to Medscape.

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