Surgical Treatment of Hepatocellular Carcinoma: Resection Versus Transplantation

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Hepatocellular carcinoma is the second most common cause of cancer mortality worldwide and its incidence is rising in North America, with an estimated 35,000 cases in the U.S. in 2014. The best chance for cure is surgical resection in the form of either segmental removal or whole organ transplantation although recent survival data on radiofrequency ablation approximates surgical resection and could be placed under the new moniker of “thermal resection”. The debate between surgical resection and transplantation focuses on patients with “within Milan criteria” tumors, single tumors, and well compensated cirrhosis who can safely undergo either procedure. Although transplantation historically has had better survival outcomes, early diagnosis, reversal of liver disease, and innovations in patient selection and neo-adjuvant therapies have led to similar 5-year survival. Transplantation clearly has less risk of tumor recurrence but exposes recipients to long term immunosuppression and its side effects. Liver transplantation is also limited by the severe global limit on the supply of organ donors whereas resection is readily available. The current data does not favor one treatment over the other for patients with minimal or no portal hypertension and normal synthetic function. Instead, the decision to resect or transplant for HCC relies on multiple factors including tumor characteristics, biology, geography, co-morbidities, location, organ availability, social support and practice preference.

Resection Versus Transplantation

The debate between resection and transplantation revolves around patients who have well compensated cirrhosis with Milan criteria resectable tumors. Patients within these criteria represent a very small proportion of those who initially present with HCC. This is especially true in western countries where hepatitis C is the most common cause of liver failure and HCC is a result of the progressive and in most cases advanced cirrhosis.

Given the need for a large number of patients to show statistical significance, it would be difficult to perform a high-quality prospective randomized controlled trial comparing resection and transplantation. In fact the literature revealed that no randomized controlled trials addressing this issue exist. Instead, outcomes of surgical treatment for HCC stem from retrospective analyses that have inherent detection, selection and attrition biases.

Given the numerous articles available on this subject, several meta-analyses have been published to delineate the role of transplantation and resection for treatment of HCC. However, there is reason to be wary of these meta-analyses because they pool data from heterogeneous populations with variable selection criteria and treatment protocols. One such meta-analysis by Dhir et al. focused their choice of articles to strict criteria which excluded studies with non-cirrhotic patients, fibrolamellar HCC and hepato-cholangiocarcinomas but included those with HCC within Milan criteria and computation of 5-year survival; between 1990 and 2011 they identified ten articles that fit within these criteria, of which six were ITT analyses, six included only well-compensated cirrhotics (Child-Pugh Class A without liver dysfunction) and three were ITT analyses of well-compensated cirrhotics.

Analysis of the six ITT studies that included all cirrhotics (n = 1118) (Child-Pugh Class A through C) showed no significant difference in survival at 5 years (OR = 0.600, 95 % CI 0.291– 1.237 l; p=0.166) but ITT analysis of only well-compensated cirrhotics (Child- Pugh Class A) revealed that patients undergoing transplant had a significantly higher 5-year survival as compared to those with resection (OR=0.521, 95 % CI 0.298–0.911; p=0.022).

A more recent ITT retrospective analysis from Spain assessed long-term survival and tumor recurrence following resection or transplant for tumors <5 cm in 217 cirrhotics (Child-Pugh Class A, B and C) over the span of 16 years. Recurrence at 5 years was significantly higher in the resection group (71.6 % vs. 16 % p<0.001) but survival at 4 years was similar (60 % vs. 62 %) which is likely explained by the evolving role of adjuvant therapies to treat post-resection recurrence.


  1. Patients with anatomically resectable single tumors and no cirrhosis or Child-Pugh Class A cirrhosis with normal bilirubin, HVPG (<10 mmHg), albumin and INR can be offered resection (evidence quality moderate; strong recommendation).
  2. Patients with Milan criteria tumors in the setting of Child- Pugh Class A with low platelets and either low albumin or high bilirubin or Child-Pugh Class B and C cirrhosis, especially those with more than one tumor, should be offered liver transplantation over resection (evidence quality moderate; strong recommendation).
  3. Those with Milan criteria tumors and Child-Pugh Class A cirrhosis without liver dysfunction should be considered for transplantation over resection (evidence quality low; weak recommendation).
  4. No recommendation can be made in regard to transplanting tumors beyond Milan criteria (evidence quality low) except to follow regional review board criteria.
  5. Pre-transplant therapies such as embolic or thermal ablation are safe and by expert opinion considered to be effective in decreasing transplant waitlist dropout and bridging patients to transplant (evidence quality low, weak recommendation). These interventions should be considered for those waiting longer than 6 months (evi- dence quality low, moderate recommendation).
  6. Living donor liver transplantation is a safe and effective option for treatment of HCC that are within and exceed Milan criteria (evidence quality moderate, weak recommendation).

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