Medical Approaches for Liver Cancer

Can drugs treat liver cancer?

Using medicines, drugs or other substances to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing is an important part of liver cancer treatment. We offer a number of medical approaches for liver cancer:

Targeted therapy for liver cancer

No two cancer patients are exactly alike and the same is true for cancers. Each tumor is genetically unique, and these differences can mean that one patient responds to a treatment and another does not. Targeted therapies identify and attack cancer cells by homing in on specific genetic abnormalities of the cells. Some targeted therapies attack the cancer cells directly; others inhibit the tumor’s ability to form new blood vessels to feed it. A commonly used targeted therapy for liver cancer is sorafenib.

Immunotherapy for liver cancer

These newest drugs fight liver cancer by stimulating the body’s own immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. Normally, your immune system is able to tell the difference between healthy body cells and those that are “foreign” and need to be attacked and uses checkpoints or molecule-switches on immune cells that to activate or inactivate an immune response. Cancer cells are tricky and can hijack the checkpoints to evade detection by the immune system. Drugs that target these checkpoints are a new class of immunotherapy for cancer care. Two checkpoint-inhibiting drugs currently used for liver cancer include the anti-PD-1 therapies, nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda).

Clinical trials for liver cancer

Access to the very latest drugs and treatment approaches is available only through a clinical trial

Learn more

Chemotherapy for liver cancer

Traditional chemotherapy uses drugs to identify cancer cells by their rapid rate of reproduction. However, due to the unique features of primary liver cancer and the liver itself, existing chemotherapy regimens have not been very effective against liver cancer. New approaches that combine chemotherapy with other treatments such as targeted therapy or embolization are offered in clinical trials. Novel ways of delivering chemotherapy directly to the liver are able to target cancer in the liver, including metastases to the liver from cancers elsewhere in the body. These options include:  

Transarterial chemoembolization (TACE) for liver cancer

TACE is a form of regional chemotherapy in which the anticancer drugs are delivered directly through the hepatic artery leading to the liver. Small particles or spheres designed to block blood vessels are mixed with the drugs to close off the artery, trapping the drugs near the tumor. Blood flow (including oxygen and nutrients) to the tumor is blocked, but the rest of the liver continues to receive blood via the hepatic portal vein.

Hepatic artery infusion

A wireless metal pump about the size of a hockey puck is surgically placed inside the abdominal wall, and a small tube (catheter) is inserted into the blood vessel that connects to the hepatic artery, the major blood vessel that carries blood to the liver. Hepatic artery infusion allows doctors to continuously deliver a powerful dose of chemotherapy straight to the liver and provide a liver-directed treatment option for patients with high-risk liver tumors who could not undergo surgery. This approach is used for colorectal cancer that has spread to the liver and some bile duct cancers.

Learn more about clinical trials involving liver cancer.