Sequential transarterial chemoembolisation and stereotactic body radiotherapy followed by immunotherapy as conversion therapy for patients with locally advanced, unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma (START-FIT): a single-arm, phase 2 trial

Lancet Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2023 Feb;8(2):169-178. doi: 10.1016/S2468-1253(22)00339-9. Epub 2022 Dec 15.


Background: The synergy between locoregional therapies and immune checkpoint inhibitors has not been investigated as conversion therapy for unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma. We aimed to investigate the activity of sequential transarterial chemoembolisation (TACE) and stereotactic body radiotherapy followed by avelumab (an anti-PD-L1 drug) for locally advanced, unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma.

Methods: START-FIT was a single-arm, phase 2 trial in patients with locally advanced hepatocellular carcinoma who were not suitable for curative treatment, conducted in two hospitals in Hong Kong and one in Shenzhen, China. Eligible patients were those aged 18 years or older with an Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group performance status 0-1, Child-Pugh liver function score A5 to B7, tumour size of at least 5 cm, a maximum of three tumour lesions, and adequate hepatic, renal, and bone marrow function. Participants received TACE on day 1, followed by stereotactic body radiotherapy (27·5-40·0 Gy in five fractions) at day 28. Avelumab (10 mg/kg) was administered 14 days following stereotactic body radiotherapy and every 2 weeks thereafter. The primary endpoint was the proportion of patients deemed amenable to curative treatment, defined as those who had a sustained complete or partial treatment response for at least 2 months and if curative treatment could be performed (ie, resection, radiofrequency ablation, or transplantation), analysed by intention to treat. Safety was also analysed in the intention-to-treat population. This trial is registered with (NCT03817736) and has been completed.

Findings: Between March 18, 2019, and Jan 27, 2021, 33 patients (32 [97%] men and one [3%] woman) were enrolled. The median sum of the largest diameters of lesions was 15·1 cm (IQR 8·3-14·9). 21 (64%) patients had macrovascular invasion (hepatic vein [n=13], branched portal vein [n=3], or both [n=5]). Median follow-up was 17·2 months (IQR 7·8-25·8). 18 (55%) patients were deemed amenable to curative treatment: four (12%) of 33 patients had curative treatment (resection [n=2] or radiofrequency ablation [n=2]), and 14 (42%) had a radiological complete response and opted for close surveillance. 11 (33%) of 33 patients had treatment-related adverse events that were grade 3 or worse. The most common treatment-related grade 3 or worse adverse event was transient increase in alanine aminotransferase or aspartate aminotransferase (five [15%]) after TACE. Five (15%) patients developed immune-related adverse events of grade 3 or worse (three had hepatitis, two had dermatitis).

Interpretation: To our knowledge, this is the first prospective trial using the combination of immunotherapy and locoregional treatment as conversion therapy for locally advanced unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma, with promising results. Future randomised trials with larger cohorts of patients are warranted.

Funding: Merck.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial, Phase II
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / drug therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy
  • Liver Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Male
  • Prospective Studies
  • Radiosurgery*

Associated data