National guidelines on transplant selection have adopted successful downstaging to within Milan criteria (MC) as a viable option for the treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) before liver transplant (LT). Recurrence of HCC after LT carries a poor prognosis, and treatment modalities remain challenging.
Objective To establish the 10-year outcomes of patients with HCC after LT in a large, multicenter US study based on individual data; provide robust data on the long-term role of downstaging; and evaluate the association of treatment modalities with postrecurrence survival.
Design, Setting, and Participants In this cohort study, a retrospective, multicenter analysis of prospectively collected data was conducted for 2645 adults who had undergone LT for HCC at 5 US academic centers between January 2001 and December 2015. The analysis was performed from May 2019 through June 2021. Outcomes of 341 patients whose disease was downstaged to within MC were compared with those in 2122 patients whose disease was always within MC and 182 patients whose disease was not downstaged. The associations of tumor and treatment factors on postrecurrence survival were analyzed using Cox proportional hazards regression and multivariable logistic regression models.
Main Outcomes and Measures The primary outcome was overall survival for the whole cohort and according to downstaging status. Secondary outcomes were time to recurrence, recurrence-free survival, and recurrence after specific post-LT therapies.
Results Of the 2645 patients studied, the median age was 59.9 years (IQR, 54.7-64.7 years). The majority of the patients were men (2028 [76.7%] vs 617 [23.3%] women). The 10-year post-LT survival and recurrence rates were, respectively, 52.1% and 20.6% among those whose disease was downstaged; 61.5% and 13.3% in those always within MC; and 43.3% and 41.1% in those whose disease was not downstaged. Independent variables associated with downstaging failure were tumor size greater than 7 cm at diagnosis (OR, 2.62; 95% CI, 1.20-5.75; P = .02), more than 3 tumors at diagnosis (OR, 2.34; 95% CI, 1.22-4.50; P = .01), and α-fetoprotein response of at least 20 ng/mL with less than 50% improvement from maximum α-fetoprotein before LT (OR, 1.99; 95% CI, 1.14-3.46; P = .02). Surgically treated patients with recurrent HCC differed in clinicopathologic characteristics and had improved 5-year postrecurrence survival rates (31.6% vs 7.3%; P < .001).
Conclusions and Relevance In a large, multicenter cohort of patients with HCC successfully downstaged to within MC, 10-year post-LT outcomes were excellent, validating national downstaging policies and showing a clear utility benefit for LT prioritization decision making. Surgical management of HCC recurrence after LT was associated with improved survival in well-selected patients and should be pursued, if feasible.