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Hepatitis C Drug May Help Stop Liver Cancer Recurrence


WebMD Health News

May 30, 2001 -- There's new hope for those suffering from liver cancer. A drug commonly used to treat hepatitis C may help in the management of liver cancer caused by the hepatitis C virus.

The drug, called interferon alpha, appears to help prevent the return of liver cancer in people with hepatitis C who have had a tumor removed surgically, say researchers at Osaka City University Medical School in Japan. Their study was published in the May 15 edition of Annals of Internal Medicine.

The hepatitis C virus is a major cause of chronic liver disease in the U.S. It accounts for about 20% of acute hepatitis cases, 60-70% of chronic hepatitis cases, and 30% of cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease, and liver cancer cases.

Hepatitis C is often treated with a regimen of interferon alpha injections, but the drug has also been shown to decrease initial liver cancer in those with the disease.

Although liver cancer is usually treated with surgical removal of the tumor, recurrence of the cancer can occur. In fact, Shoji Kubo, MD, and colleagues say in their report that liver cancer is likely to recur following surgery in as many as 80% of people with hepatitis C-related liver cancer.

In the study, 15 people who had surgery to remove liver cancer stemming from infection with hepatitis C received injections of interferon alpha for a total of 88 weeks. Results were compared with those of a control group of 15 patients who underwent surgery but did not receive the drug.

The rate of recurrence was significantly lower among people treated with the drug. Five patients in the treated group had a recurrence, compared with 12 in the group that did not receive interferon alpha, according to the study.

Experts say that although the results are encouraging, the study was a small one that needs to be redone in larger clinical trials.

Thomas W. London, MD, senior member of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, notes that of the 15 patients treated with the interferon alpha therapy, only eight had a true remission of cancer based on biochemical tests of the liver. And of those, one patient did have a recurrence.

Moreover, the follow-up time in the study -- which averaged just under three years for the patients who received the therapy -- may not be long enough to say for certain those patients are cured. "The study authors think the people who did not get a recurrence are cured, but there is no way to know that," London tells WebMD.

So ultimately, the therapy may be only delaying recurrence, although that in itself would be a valuable finding, London says.

In any case, the number of patients who would actually be candidates for interferon alpha following surgery would likely be small. In general, people with hepatitis C-related liver cancer have been living with a damaged liver for a long time and may have incurred extensive damage that will make surgery difficult or impossible or could make them unable to tolerate the drug, London tells WebMD.

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