Background: For patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the definition of refractoriness to transarterial chemoembolization (TACE), which might make them a candidate for systemic therapy, is still controversial. We aimed to derive and validate a tumor marker-based algorithm to define the refractoriness to TACE in patients with intermediate-stage HCC. Methods: This multi-cohort study was comprised of patients who underwent TACE for treatment-naïve intermediate-stage HCC. We derived a prediction model for overall survival (OS) using the pre-and post-TACE model to predict tumor recurrence after living donor liver transplantation (MoRAL) (i.e., MoRAL score = 11×√protein induced by vitamin K absence-II + 2×√alpha-fetoprotein), which was proven to reflect both tumor burden and biologic aggressiveness of HCC in the explant liver, from a training cohort (n = 193). These results were externally validated in both an independent hospital cohort (from two large-volume centers, n = 140) and a Korean National Cancer Registry sample cohort (n = 149). Results: The changes in MoRAL score (∆MoRAL) after initial TACE was an independent predictor of OS (MoRAL-increase vs. MoRAL-non-increase: adjusted hazard ratio (HR) = 2.18, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.37–3.46, p = 0.001; median OS = 18.8 vs. 37.8 months). In a subgroup of patients with a high baseline MoRAL score (≥89.5, 25th percentile and higher), the prognostic impact of ∆MoRAL was more pronounced (MoRAL-increase vs. MoRAL-non-increase: HR = 3.68, 95% CI = 1.54–8.76, p < 0.001; median OS = 9.9 vs. 37.4 months). These results were reproduced in the external validation cohorts. Conclusion: The ∆MoRAL after the first TACE, a simple and objective index, provides refined prognostication for patients with intermediate-stage HCC. Proceeding to a second TACE may not provide additional survival benefits in cases of a MoRAL-increase after the first TACE in patients with a high baseline MoRAL score (≥89.5), who might be candidates for systemic therapy.
- Hepatocellular carcinoma
- Protein induced by vitamin K absence-II
- Tumor biology
- Tumor marker