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Biological therapy

Biological therapies are drugs that change the way that cells work and help the body control the growth of primary liver cancer that is advanced.

Some seek out and destory cancer cells. Others help the body attack the cancer

How you have biological therapy

You can have biological therapies:
  • as a tablet
  • into your blood stream as a drip into your arm
  • an injection under your skin

Sorafenib for primary liver cancer

Sorafenib is a type of biological therapy. Doctors might use sorafenib as a first treatment for people with advanced hepatocellular cancer (HCC). To have this treatment your liver must be working well.

Sorafenib is a type of cancer growth blocker called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI). Tyrosine kinases are proteins that cells use to signal to each other to grow and divide. Sorafenib works in 2 ways. It stops:

  • signals that tell cancer cells to grow
  • cancer cells forming new blood vessels, which they need to keep growing.

You take sorafenib as a tablet. You usually take it for as long as it controls the cancer and is not causing too many side effects.

Side effects of biological therapies

Some of the most common side effects of sorafenib include:

  • diarrhoea
  • hand-foot syndrome – soreness and redness of the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
  • a rash, or red, dry itchy skin
  • fatigue (tiredness)
  • hair thinning
  • feeling sick
  • raised blood pressure (hypertension)

Increased risk of bleeding such as nosebleeds or bleeding gums – if you notice blood in your stool (poo) or sick, contact your doctor or specialist nurse straight away

We have more information about the side effects of sorafenib and how to cope with them in our cancer drugs section.

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any side effects as you may be able to have medicines to help control them.

Other biological therapies for liver cancer

Researchers are looking at some other biological therapies in trials for liver cancer. All new treatments have to go through the clinical trials process and this takes some years. Other biological therapies being looked at on their own or in combination with other treatments include:

  • sunitinib
  • erlotinib
  • bevacizumab
  • tivantinib
  • tefinostat

So far results from some trials into biological therapies have not been as promising as hoped. But researchers continue to investigate these types of drugs to improve treatment for liver cancer. There is information about research into biological therapies on the liver cancer research page.

When you go home

Treatment with targeted drugs can be difficult to cope with for some people. Your nurse will give you numbers to call if you have any problems at home.

Tell your doctor or nurse about any problems or side effects you have.
Last reviewed: 
03 Mar 2015
  • Hepatocellular carcinoma: ESMO–ESDO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    C. Verslype, O. Rosmorduc, P. Rougier,
    Ann Oncol (2012) 23 (suppl 7)

  • EASL-EORTC clinical practice guidelines: management of hepatocellular carcinoma
    European Association For The Study Of The Liver; European Organisation For Research And Treatment Of Cancer
    ​April 2012Volume 56, Issue 4, Pages 908–943

  • Hepatocellular Carcinoma
    Hashem B. El-Serag, M.D., M.P.H.
    N Engl J Med 2011; 365:1118-1127September 22, 2011

  • Electronic Medicines Compendium (accessed March 2015)

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