​Toronto (March 30, 2022) - A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Surgery is the first in North America to demonstrate that living-donor liver transplant is a viable option for patients who have systemically controlled colorectal cancer and liver tumours that cannot be surgically removed.

"This study proves that transplant is an effective treatment to improve quality of life and survival for patients with colorectal cancer that metastasized to the liver," said senior study author Dr. Gonzalo Sapisochin, a transplant surgeon at UHN's Ajmera Transplant Centre and the Sprott Department of Surgery at University Health Network (UHN).

"As the first successful North American experience, it represents an important step towards moving this protocol from the research arena to standard of care," adds Dr. Sapisochin, who is also a clinician investigator at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute and an Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery at University of Toronto.

The study, which was conducted at UHN, the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), and Cleveland Clinic, focused on colorectal cancer in part because of its tendency to spread to the liver. Nearly half of all patients with colorectal cancer develop liver metastases within a few years of diagnosis and 70 per cent of liver tumours in these patients cannot be removed without removing the entire liver.

Unfortunately, deceased-donor liver transplant is not a viable option for most of these patients because, despite their tumours, their liver function is fairly normal, which lands them toward the bottom of the national organ transplant waiting list. In North America, one in six patients dies each year while waiting for an organ on this list.

Thanks to recent advances in cancer treatments, many of these patients are able to get their cancer under systemic control, which means their liver tumours are the only things standing between them and a "cancer free" label. It also increases the odds that these patients – and their new livers – will remain cancer free, which is crucial when balancing the benefit to the patient with the risk to a living donor.

"I've seen so many cancer patients, whose cancers were not spreading, but we couldn't remove the tumours from their livers and we knew they would die," said study first author Dr. Roberto Hernandez-Alejandro, who is Chief of the Abdominal Transplant and Liver Surgery Division at URMC. "We hoped living-donor liver transplant could give them another chance."

Because it offered a last resort, the study attracted patients from near and far. All patients and donors went through a rigorous screening process to ensure they were good candidates for the procedure, and they were educated about the risks of the surgery and the possibility of cancer recurrence.

Patients and donors underwent staggered surgeries to fully remove patients' diseased livers and replace them with half of their donors' livers. Over time, both patients' and donors' livers regenerate and regain normal function.

Patients have been closely monitored via imaging and blood analysis for any signs of cancer recurrence and will continue to be followed for up to five years after their surgery. At the time the study was published, two patients had follow-up of two or more years and both remained alive and well, cancer-free.

"This [study] brings hope for patients who have a dismal chance of surviving a few more months," said Dr. Hernandez-Alejandro, who is also an investigator at the Wilmot Cancer Institute. "With this, we're opening opportunities for patients to live longer – and for some of them, to be cured."

"We have seen very good outcomes with this protocol, with 100 per cent survival and 62 per cent of patients remaining cancer free one-year-and-a-half after surgery," said study author Dr. Mark Cattral, Surgical Director of the Living Donor Liver Program at UHN's Ajmera Transplant Centre and a surgeon in the Sprott Department of Surgery at UHN. "It is very strong data to support that we can offer this treatment safely and make appropriate use of scarce life-saving organs."

The authors have no competing interests to disclose.

This work was supported by generous donors to UHN Foundation.

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About the Ajmera Transplant Centre at UHN

The Ajmera Transplant Centre is the largest transplant program in Canada, and a global reference in world-class patient care, research and innovation. It performs over 600 transplant surgeries every year, including lung, heart, liver, kidney, pancreas and small bowel transplantation. Our team of doctors, surgeons, nurses and allied health professionals cares for the sickest of the sick. Patients with the most complex and advanced organ damage are referred here from across the country because we have the life-saving expertise they need. The Centre provides lifelong care for more than 6,000 transplant recipients living in more than 550 communities across Canada. For more information, visit: UHNtransplant.ca.

About the University of Rochester Medical Center

A leading academic medical center in the United States, the University of Rochester Medical Center forms the centerpiece of the University of Rochester's health research, teaching and patient care missions. As upstate New York's premier health care delivery network, patients benefit from the Medical Center's robust teaching and biomedical research programs. The Medical Center is home to the Wilmot Cancer Institute, which has a long history of outstanding clinical care and research breakthroughs, and serves approximately 3 million people in a 27-county region in western and central New York. URMC also boasts a pioneering liver transplant program, which is ranked number one in New York state for living donor transplants and has performed more living donor liver transplants for patients with colorectal liver metastases than any other center in North America.

Media Contact

Ana Fernandes
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Phone: 437 216 4597
Email: ana.fernandes@uhn.ca

Susanne Pallo
Senior Communications Associate, URMC
Phone: 315-778-7615
Email: susanne_pallo@urmc.rochester.edu

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