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Reuters Health Information (2013-06-26): Biannual ultrasound helps spot early liver cancer


Biannual ultrasound helps spot early liver cancer

Last Updated: 2013-06-26 16:27:28 -0400 (Reuters Health)

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - In cirrhotic patients, biannual ultrasonography may have advantages over annual computed tomography for detecting early hepatoma, researchers suggest.

Whether early detection will reduce mortality is another question, however.

"No appropriately designed study has ever shown a mortality benefit" of screening for early hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), said study coauthor Dr. Christine Pocha, of Minneapolis VAHCS System, Minnesota, in email to Reuters Health.

"More importantly," she continued, "surveillance programs must recognize the limitations in HCC surveillance tests and treatment efficacy in specific patient populations."

Still, she added, ultrasound screening has been recommended for more than a decade. Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) levels were used until recently as well, although that marker has now been dropped officially because of a lack of sensitivity.

There's no consensus on screening intervals, however, and now some providers have started to use computed tomography (CT), as Dr. Pocha's team points out in a June 10 online paper in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

In the current study, the researchers sought to evaluate CT screening, thinking it would detect smaller tumors at lower overall cost.

They randomized 163 Veterans Health Administration patients with compensated cirrhosis to biannual ultrasonography (US) or yearly triple-phase-contrast CT. In addition, patients had AFP testing twice per year.

The HCC incidence was 6.6% per year. Nine HCCs were detected by US and eight by CT. Sensitivity and specificity rates, respectively, were 71.4% and 97.5% with US vs 66.7% and 94.4% with CT.

The biannual AFP testing added little to overall HCC detection, the investigators say. They add, however, that its cost was low, and one patient was identified by increasing AFP level, although initial imaging was negative.

But while 58.8% of HCCs were detected at an early stage, only 23.5% of patients received potentially curative treatment, and only one patient received a liver transplant. HCC-related mortality was 70.5% and overall mortality was 82.3%, suggesting that most patients died of their cancer.

The researchers conclude that biannual US was marginally more sensitive and less costly than annual CT for detecting early HCC. Because of the costs and the risks involved in CT, they say it "should not be used as screening tool for a population at risk for HCC."

Advances in screening technologies and HCC treatments "may provide further incremental improvements in the cost/effectiveness equation," Dr. Pocha told Reuters Health.

But in the meantime, her team concludes in its paper, "The overall efficacy of HCC surveillance in a cirrhotic population in the United States has yet to be demonstrated, and further research is needed."


Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2013.

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