New drug combo could improve survival for patients with common liver cancer

Since the drug sorafenib was approved in 2007, no new first-line therapy has been shown to improve survival in patients with advanced liver cancer. But that could be changing.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the combination of atezolizumab and bevacizumab improved survival by 42% for patients with hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of liver cancer.

“In patients with unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma, atezolizumab combined with bevacizumab resulted in better overall and progression-free survival outcomes than sorafenib,” the study authors concluded.

The combination therapy is currently being reviewed for approval under FDA’s Real-Time Oncology Review pilot program.

"By using these two drugs with different mechanisms of action together, we have increased the number of patients who respond to this treatment and have increased the duration of these responses as compared to the standard treatment, sorafenib," said the study's lead author, Richard S. Finn, MD, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, in a press release.

Atezolizumab is an immunotherapy drug that boosts the body's natural defenses, and bevacizumab is an antiangiogenesis drug that inhibits the growth of a tumor's blood vessels.

Finn called the new therapy a “game-changer” for people diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma. "We now have a new therapy that not only improves survival for people with the disease, which is very challenging to treat, but that helps them live longer while maintaining a high quality of life," he added.

Finn and his research team analyzed results from roughly 500 adult patients worldwide with advanced metastatic or unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma who were randomly assigned different treatments: Two-thirds received the atezolizumab and bevacizumab combination, while one-third received sorafenib. Overall survival at 12 months was 67.2 % with atezolizumab–bevacizumab, and 54.6% with sorafenib. 

"Liver cancer is one of the few cancers that is growing in incidence and death rate," Finn said. "That's why it's so important that we now have something in the front-line setting—after more than a decade—that markedly improves survival in this very challenging disease."