– Recent approvals and investigations of targeted and immune treatments for advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) are encouraging, Nikolaos Pyrsopoulos, MD, MBA, said at Digestive Diseases: New Advances, jointly provided by Rutgers and Global Academy for Medical Education.

“I am excited, because a few years ago, there was only one [Food and Drug Administration] approved medication,” Dr. Pyrsopoulos, division director for gastroenterology and hepatology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Newark, said in an interview. “We are on the cusp where new compounds not only are being tested, but they are being approved.”

In one of the most recent developments, the multikinase inhibitor cabozantinib significantly improved the primary endpoint of overall survival versus placebo in HCC patients in the randomized phase 3 CELESTIAL trial.

Median overall survival in CELESTIAL was 10.2 months for cabozantinib versus 8.0 for placebo (P = .0049), according to the published report, and investigators also reported significant improvements in progression-free survival and response versus placebo.

“It is very encouraging,” Dr. Pyrsopoulos said of the cabozantinib results in a presentation on advances in HCC that he gave at the conference.

For years, the only FDA-approved treatment for advanced HCC was sorafenib. In the randomized phase 3 SHARP trial, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008, patients receiving the multikinase inhibitor had a median survival of 10.7 months, versus 7.9 months for placebo (P less than .001).

In April 2017, the FDA approved regorafenib for patients with HCC previously treated with sorafenib. In the randomized phase 3 RESORCE trial, published in The Lancet in 2017, median overall survival was 10.6 months for regorafenib-treated patients versus 7.8 months in the placebo group. Investigators reported that regorafenib improved overall survival with a hazard ratio of 0.63 (P less than .0001).

Dr. Pyrsopoulos noted that a strategy of sorafenib followed by regorafenib would combine two treatments, each of which in clinical trials had a median overall survival approaching 11 months.

“In essence, you have an approximate 2-year survival,” he said.

More agents are under investigation, including lenvatinib, another multikinase inhibitor. In results of a phase 3 randomized trial presented at the 2017 meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, lenvatinib was noninferior to sorafenib in overall survival, with treatment-related adverse effects such as hypertension and diarrhea that were expected based on previous experience with the drug, investigators said.

Cancer immunotherapy is making inroads into HCC. Just a few months after approving regorafenib, the FDA granted approval to nivolumab, a PD-1 inhibitor, for patients with HCC previously treated with sorafenib. The September 2017 approval of this checkpoint inhibitor was based in part on data from the CheckMate-040 trial that included a 14.3% response rate in the 154-patient subgroup of patients who had progressive disease on sorafenib or were intolerant of the treatment.

Dr. Pyrsopoulos highlighted another checkpoint inhibitor, known as BGB-A317, or tislelizumab. In January, BeiGene announced the initiation of a global phase 3 trial of this anti-PD-1 antibody versus sorafenib as first-line treatment of patients with unresectable HCC.

Although cancer immunotherapy holds great promise for HCC and other cancers, the treatments are associated with unique immune-related adverse events (irAEs) including immune-related hepatitis that may require corticosteroid treatment, according to Dr. Pyrsopoulos.

Dr. Pyrsopoulos reported disclosures related to AbbVie, Bayer, Genfit, Gilead Sciences, Hologic, Merck, Prometheus, Shire, and Vital Therapies.

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