There is significant uncertainty in the treatment of intermediate-stage hepatocellular carcinoma which is defined by the Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer (BCLC) as hepatocellular carcinoma stage B with large, multi-nodular, Child-Pugh status A to B, performance status 0 to 2, and without vascular occlusion or extrahepatic disease.
To assess the comparative benefits and harms of different interventions used in the treatment of intermediate-stage hepatocellular carcinoma (BCLC stage B) through a network meta-analysis and to generate rankings of the available interventions according to their safety and efficacy. However, we found only one comparison. Therefore, we did not perform the network meta-analysis, and we assessed the comparative benefits and harms of different interventions versus each other, or versus placebo, sham, or no intervention (supportive treatment only) using standard Cochrane methodology.
We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, Embase, Science Citation Index Expanded, World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform, and randomised clinical trials registers to September 2016 to identify randomised clinical trials on hepatocellular carcinoma.
We included only randomised clinical trials, irrespective of language, blinding, or publication status, in participants with intermediate-stage hepatocellular carcinoma, irrespective of the presence of cirrhosis, size, or number of the tumours (provided they met the criteria of intermediate-stage hepatocellular carcinoma), of presence or absence of portal hypertension, of aetiology of hepatocellular carcinoma, and of the future remnant liver volume. We excluded trials which included participants who had previously undergone liver transplantation. We considered any of the various interventions compared with each other or with no active intervention (supportive treatment only). We excluded trials which compared variations of the same intervention: for example, different methods of performing transarterial chemoembolisation.
We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane. We calculated the hazard ratio (HR) with 95% confidence intervals (CI) using both fixed-effect and random-effects models based on available-participant analysis with Review Manager. We assessed risk of bias according to Cochrane, controlled risk of random errors with Trial Sequential Analysis using Stata, and assessed the quality of the evidence using GRADE.
Three randomised clinical trials, including 430 participants, met the inclusion criteria for this review; however, data from two trials with 412 participants could be included in only one primary outcome (i.e. mortality). All three trials were at high risk of bias. All three trials included supportive care as cointervention. The comparisons included in the two trials reporting on mortality were: systemic chemotherapy with sorafenib versus no active intervention; and transarterial chemoembolisation plus systemic chemotherapy with sorafenib versus transarterial chemoembolisation alone. The trials did not report the duration of follow-up; however, it appeared that the participants were followed up for a period of about 18 to 30 months. The majority of the participants in the trials had cirrhotic livers. The trials included participants with intermediate-stage hepatocellular carcinoma arising from viral and non-viral aetiologies. The trials did not report the portal hypertension status of the participants. The mortality was 50% to 70% over a median follow-up period of 18 to 30 months. There was no evidence of difference in mortality at maximal follow-up between systemic chemotherapy versus no chemotherapy (hazard ratio 0.85, 95% CI 0.60 to 1.18; participants = 412; studies = 2; I(2) = 0%; very low quality evidence). A subgroup analysis performed by stratifying the analysis by the presence or absence of transarterial chemoembolisation as cointervention did not alter the results. None of the trials reported on serious adverse events other than mortality, health-related quality of life, recurrence of hepatocellular carcinoma, or length of hospital stay. One of the trials providing data was funded by the pharmaceutical industry, the other did not report the source of funding, and the trial with no data for the review was also funded by the pharmaceutical industry. We found two ongoing trials.
Currently, there is no evidence from randomised clinical trials that people with intermediate-stage hepatocellular carcinoma would benefit from systemic chemotherapy with sorafenib either alone or when transarterial chemoembolisation was used as a cointervention (very low quality evidence). We need high-quality randomised clinical trials designed to measure differences in clinically important outcomes (e.g. all-cause mortality or health-related quality of life).