Background: Alveolar echinococcosis (AE) of the liver, caused by the larval stage of the fox tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis, has the characteristics of a slow-growing liver cancer. It is one of the rare parasitic diseases for which a parasitolytic drug is not yet available, and AE is lethal in the absence of appropriate therapeutic management. Complete surgical resection of the parasite at an early stage of infection provides favourable prospects for cure, but, due to a long clinical latency, many cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage, so that partial liver resection can be performed in only 35% of patients. Benzimidazole (BZM) treatment is given in inoperable cases but these compounds are only parasitostatic, and lifelong therapy is required. During the past 20 years some centres have considered liver transplantation (LT) for the treatment of incurable AE.
Methods: Our review summarizes the results of this experience based on a series of 47 European patients who received transplants between 1985 and 2002, tries to specify the real place of LT for AE, and underlines the measures that could be undertaken in the future to improve the results.
Results: Five-year survival was 71%. Five-year survival without recurrence was 58%. Major technical difficulties related either to previous laparotomies or to the loco-regional involvement were observed. The nine early deaths concerned AE patients with a long past-history of symptomatic AE (iterative cholangitis, secondary biliary cirrhosis). Five late deaths were directly related to ongoing AE, located in the brain in three cases, a very rare AE location that was not investigated before LT in these patients.
Conclusions: In general, the pre-LT screening for distant AE metastases appeared insufficient in this series. Heavy immunosuppressive schemes, absence or delayed re-introduction of BZM after LT have clearly played a role in this unfavourable course. This unique experience indicates that, despite major technical difficulties, LT for incurable AE is feasible and could be discussed in very symptomatic cases. Before LT, interventional radiology should be preferred to repeated laparotomies. Pre-LT and post-LT BZM treatment is mandatory. A careful evaluation of possible distant metastases should be done before the decision for LT is made. After LT, the possibility of an ongoing AE must be permanently kept in mind. This could be reduced by lightening the immunosuppressants, carefully following the specific circulating antibodies, and applying a systematic radiological evaluation, not only to the graft but also to the lungs and the brain.