Treatment with interferon reduces the risk of liver cancer six fold in some patients with cirrhosis, new research shows.
Interferon-alpha, an antiviral drug, reduces the risk of liver cancer in cirrhosis patients infected with hepatitis C. But the drug has a negligible effect in patients infected with hepatitis B or both hepatitis B and C.
Most cases of liver cancer are associated with hepatitis B and/or hepatitis C virus infections. These chronic infections lead, in many cases, to cirrhosis of the liver which can progress to cancer.
Previous studies have shown that hepatitis patients who respond to interferon treatment are unlikely to develop cirrhosis and liver cancer. But it was not known if treating people who already have cirrhosis protects them from developing the cancer.
Researchers from Italy, Argentina, Germany and Saudi Arabia looked at medical records of 637 patients who had chronic viral hepatitis and cirrhosis. Just under half had received interferon-alpha. Only 10 per cent of the treated patients eventually developed liver cancer, compared with 19 per cent of the untreated ones.
But some treated patients were infected with both viruses.
International Hepatocellular Carcinoma Study Group. Effect of interferon-alpha on progression of cirrhosis to hepatocellular carcinoma: a retrospective study. Lancet 1998; 351 (9115): 1535-39.