Purpose and design: The management of patients with early hepatocellular carcinoma has become increasingly complex. The most appropriate therapy largely depends on the functional status of the underlying liver. Here we review the modalities of transplantation, resection, and ablation in this patient population.
Results and conclusion: In patients with cirrhosis and/or portal hypertension, and disease extent within the Milan criteria, liver transplantation is clearly the best option. This modality not only provides therapy for the cancer but also treats the underlying hepatic parenchymal disease. In patients with well-preserved hepatic function, on the other hand, liver resection remains the most appropriate and effective treatment. Hepatic resection is not constrained by the same variables of tumor extent and location that limit the applicability of transplantation and ablative therapies. In addition, patients whose disease recurs after resection are often still eligible for transplantation. Ablative therapies, particularly percutaneous radiofrequency ablation and transarterial embolization/chemoembolization, have been used primarily to treat patients with low-volume unresectable tumors. The question has increasingly been raised regarding whether ablation of small tumors (<3 cm) provides long-term disease control that is comparable to resection. Ablative therapies has also been used as a means of controlling disease in patients who are on transplantation waiting lists, although improved posttransplantation outcome using these techniques has yet to be proven prospectively. The major problem with assessing the efficacy of various treatment modalities in these patients is the heterogeneity of disease presentation, which often precludes the use of certain therapies and therefore makes the conduct of randomized control trial difficult.