A new surgical option for stage IV colon cancer with isolated liver metastases is beginning to attract attention: the liver-first approach.

It’s an alternative to usual care, meaning simultaneous bowel and liver resection or bowel resection with liver surgery later on.

Systemic chemotherapy comes first, followed by liver resection. If margins are microscopically negative, the patient gets another round of chemotherapy. If no additional lesions emerge, the primary tumor is taken out. The entire process can take up to a year.

The approach was developed in the Netherlands for rectal cancer with advanced liver metastases. The idea was to get the liver lesions out before they became unresectable, then remove the primary tumor later on. It’s gaining traction now for colon cancer, and beginning to trickle into the United States at a few academic medical centers.

It comes down to what’s more dangerous, the metastases or the primary tumor? Tumor science hasn’t answered that question yet. There’s general agreement that metastases are what kill people with cancer, but it’s not known if they come mostly from previous metastases or from the primary tumor. The liver-first approach assumes the former.

Dr. Janice Rafferty a professor of colorectal surgery at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio M. Alexander Otto/MDedge News

Dr. Janice Rafferty

Liver-first is “extremely controversial. For older surgeons who are not in tertiary care centers, liver-first doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t seem to make sense to patients. They wonder why you would go after the liver when they were diagnosed with a colon tumor,” said Janice Rafferty, MD, FACS, professor of surgery at the University of Cincinnati, at the annual clinical congress of the American College of Surgeons.

“Well, it’s because the primary tumor doesn’t limit your life,” she continued. “The life-limiting disease is in the liver, not the colon. If you explain it to them that way, it makes sense. If we cannot get an R0 resection on the liver, it doesn’t make sense to go after the primary, unless it’s symptomatic with obstruction, bleeding, or fistula.”

There have been about 10 attempts at a randomized trial of this approach versus usual care, but they were not successful because of the difficulty of recruiting patients. Patients – and no doubt, some surgeons – may have some resistance to the logic of going after metastases first.

Dr. Rafferty moderated a review of research from Yale University, New Haven, Conn., that attempted to plug the evidence gap. The Yale investigators “presented really interesting data that shows that liver-first has improved survival,” she said.

The Yale team used the National Cancer Database to compare 2010-2015 outcomes from liver-first patients with patients who had simultaneous or bowel-first resections, followed by later liver resections. The database didn’t allow them to tease out simultaneous from bowel-first cases, so they lumped them together as usual care. To avoid confounding, rectal carcinomas and metastases to the lung, brain, and other organs were excluded.

Median survival was 34 months among 358 liver-first patients versus 24 months among 18,042 usual care patients in an intention-to-treat analysis. Among patients who completed their resections, median survival was 57 months among 140 liver-first patients versus 36 months with usual care in 3,988.

The benefit held after adjustment for patient and tumor characteristics (hazard ratio for death 0.77 in favor of liver first). When further adjusted for chemotherapy timing, there was a strong trend for liver-first but it was not statistically significant, suggesting that up-front chemotherapy contributed to the results (HR, 0.88; 95% confidence interval, 0.75-1.01; P = .09).

There were many caveats. The liver-first patients were younger, with over half under the age of 60 years versus just over 40% in usual care. They were also healthier based on Charlson comorbidity scores and more likely to have upfront chemotherapy and be treated at an academic center.

Dr. Vadim Kurbatov

Dr. Vadim Kurbatov

So, what should surgeons make of these findings? Lead investigator Vadim Kurbatov, MD, a Yale surgery resident, argued that, at the very least, they suggest that liver-first is a viable option for stage IV colon cancer with isolated liver metastases. Going further, they suggest that liver first may be the right way to go for younger, healthier patients at academic centers.

For sicker stage IV patients, however, the role of liver-first is unclear. “We really do need a randomized trial,” he said.

Dr. Kurbatov and Dr. Rafferty had no relevant disclosures to report. The work was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.