Ablative and non-surgical therapies for early and very early hepatocellular carcinoma: a systematic review and network meta-analysis

Ros Wade, Emily South, Sumayya Anwer, Sahar Sharif-Hurst, Melissa Harden, Helen Fulbright, Robert Hodgson, Sofia Dias, Mark Simmonds, Ian Rowe, Patricia Thornton, Alison Eastwood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: A wide range of ablative and non-surgical therapies are available for treating small hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with very early or early-stage disease and preserved liver function.

OBJECTIVE: To review and compare the effectiveness of all current ablative and non-surgical therapies for patients with small hepatocellular carcinoma (≤ 3 cm).

DESIGN: Systematic review and network meta-analysis.

DATA SOURCES: Nine databases (March 2021), two trial registries (April 2021) and reference lists of relevant systematic reviews.

REVIEW METHODS: Eligible studies were randomised controlled trials of ablative and non-surgical therapies, versus any comparator, for small hepatocellular carcinoma. Randomised controlled trials were quality assessed using the Cochrane Risk of Bias 2 tool and mapped. The comparative effectiveness of therapies was assessed using network meta-analysis. A threshold analysis was used to identify which comparisons were sensitive to potential changes in the evidence. Where comparisons based on randomised controlled trial evidence were not robust or no randomised controlled trials were identified, a targeted systematic review of non-randomised, prospective comparative studies provided additional data for repeat network meta-analysis and threshold analysis. The feasibility of undertaking economic modelling was explored. A workshop with patients and clinicians was held to discuss the findings and identify key priorities for future research.

RESULTS: Thirty-seven randomised controlled trials (with over 3700 relevant patients) were included in the review. The majority were conducted in China or Japan and most had a high risk of bias or some risk of bias concerns. The results of the network meta-analysis were uncertain for most comparisons. There was evidence that percutaneous ethanol injection is inferior to radiofrequency ablation for overall survival (hazard ratio 1.45, 95% credible interval 1.16 to 1.82), progression-free survival (hazard ratio 1.36, 95% credible interval 1.11 to 1.67), overall recurrence (relative risk 1.19, 95% credible interval 1.02 to 1.39) and local recurrence (relative risk 1.80, 95% credible interval 1.19 to 2.71). Percutaneous acid injection was also inferior to radiofrequency ablation for progression-free survival (hazard ratio 1.63, 95% credible interval 1.05 to 2.51). Threshold analysis showed that further evidence could plausibly change the result for some comparisons. Fourteen eligible non-randomised studies were identified ( n  ≥ 2316); twelve had a high risk of bias so were not included in updated network meta-analyses. Additional non-randomised data, made available by a clinical advisor, were also included ( n  = 303). There remained a high level of uncertainty in treatment rankings after the network meta-analyses were updated. However, the updated analyses suggested that microwave ablation and resection are superior to percutaneous ethanol injection and percutaneous acid injection for some outcomes. Further research on stereotactic ablative radiotherapy was recommended at the workshop, although it is only appropriate for certain patient subgroups, limiting opportunities for adequately powered trials.

LIMITATIONS: Many studies were small and of poor quality. No comparative studies were found for some therapies.

CONCLUSIONS: The existing evidence base has limitations; the uptake of specific ablative therapies in the United Kingdom appears to be based more on technological advancements and ease of use than strong evidence of clinical effectiveness. However, there is evidence that percutaneous ethanol injection and percutaneous acid injection are inferior to radiofrequency ablation, microwave ablation and resection.


FUNDING: This award was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment (HTA) programme (NIHR award ref: NIHR131224) and is published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 27, No. 29. See the NIHR Funding and Awards website for further award information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-172
Number of pages172
JournalHealth technology assessment (Winchester, England)
Issue number29
Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023 Wade et al.


  • Humans
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular/surgery
  • Liver Neoplasms/surgery
  • Network Meta-Analysis
  • Prospective Studies
  • Ethanol/therapeutic use
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic

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