Understanding Embolization Therapy for Liver Cancer

Special Notes for Hepatitis Patients

Human liver, artwork
Embolization therapy for liver cancer. SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI / Getty Images

Embolization therapy is one of the treatment routes for liver cancer. It’s a method where substances are injected to reduce or block the blood flow into cancer cells, specifically in the liver. Thus, the goal is to eliminate blood supply and nutrients vital to the tumor and ultimately prevent the cancer cells from proliferating or growing.

What is Liver Cancer?

Liver cancer is one of the most common types of cancers today, and it originates in the liver cells.

The human liver boasts the enormousness of a football and is located within the upper part of the abdomen, below the diaphragm and over the stomach area.

Hepatocellular carcinoma is another common type of liver cancer that reproduces in a type of liver cell called a hepatocyte. Other cells in the liver can also foster cancer, but this is the most typical one.  Additionally, not all malignant cells affecting the liver can be termed “liver cancer.” While the liver may be cancerous, it may have commenced in the breast, in which case it would be called breast cancer. These cancer cells sweep into the liver through metastatic cancer cells, or a process known as metastasis. Just like any type of cancer, there are several echelons of liver cancer and each of these require varied modes of treatment and therapy.

The human liver is unique as it has a couple of blood supplies. Most of the liver cells that are normal are nourished by several branches of portal veins, wherein cancer cells in this organ are typically fed by the branches of the hepatic artery.

That is why embolization therapy of the hepatic artery can help kill the cells by starving cancer cells of dynamic blood supply. Meanwhile, the healthy cells of the liver will be sustained with blood supply diametrically from the portal veins.

Hepatic Cancer: Treatment with Embolization

Even though chemotherapy, surgery and other treatments are used in treating liver cancer, embolization is one of the options that patients suffering from liver cancer fancy.

Embolization therapy provides an alternative option, especially for individuals with tumors that cannot be detached by surgery. This treatment must only be used for tumors too large, or with ablation typically larger than five centimeters across. However, this therapy may reduce the blood supply of normal liver tissue, which means it’s not an ideal choice for certain patients who have suffered from disorders such as cirrhosis or hepatitis.  Embolization therapy is an action that doesn’t require the patient to lodge at a hospital.

Three Main Types of Embolization Therapy

  • Arterial Embolization – This is one of the variations of embolization therapy also known as trans-arterial embolization or TAE. When it comes to this therapy, it uses a catheter; a flexible and thin tube, to thread into the artery through a small cut in the inner thigh up to the liver’s hepatic artery.  A dye is injected through the bloodstream as the physician monitors the path of dye via angiography or a special category of x-ray. After placing the catheter, small substances are injected to impede the artery.
  • Chemoembolization – This is another reworking of embolization therapy, also called trans-arterial chemoembolization. It is a combination of chemotherapy and embolization. Usually, it’s performed by putting diminutive beads which give off a drug for chemotherapy for embolization. This is a type of embolization that induces chemotherapy via catheter by plugging the artery up.
  • Radioembolization - This is a method of treatment that mixes the embolization along with the radiation therapy. It is also called trans-arterial radioembolization. This is done by injecting microspheres of tiny beads with a radioactive isotope that is engendered within the hepatic artery.  Following infusion, these beads are implanted into the blood vessel inside the tumor cell, thus unfurling small quantities of radiation into the site of the tumor, as well as various vessels in the bounds of the tumor.

Embolization Therapy and Liver Cancer: Are there Side Effects?

Just like any medication or treatment, possible complications may arise from embolization therapy.

Gallbladder inflammation, liver infection, nausea, fever, abdominal pain and blood clots, especially near the liver, may occur. As the healthy cells in the liver can be affected, there’s a possibility that the function of the liver will be affected as well. The risk is also high when a large portion of the hepatic artery is used for the treatment.

References: Rammohan A, Sathyanesan J, Ramaswami S, Lakshmanan A, Senthil-Kumar P, Srinivasan UP, Ramasamy R, Ravichandran P. Embolization of liver tumors: Past, present and future. World J Radiol. 2012 Sep 28;4(9):405-12. Tong CM, Ma S, Guan XY. Biology of hepatic cancer stem cells. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2011 Aug;26(8):1229-37.