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Aetna Aetna
Clinical Policy Bulletin:
Ablation of Hepatic Lesions
Number: 0274


  1. Aetna considers cryosurgery, microwave, or radiofrequency ablation medically necessary for members with isolated colorectal cancer liver metastases or isolated hepatocellular cancer who are not candidates for open surgical resection when the selection criteria specified below are met.

    Members must fulfill all of the following criteria.  Particular emphasis should be placed on criteria B and C, which ensure that cryosurgery, microwave, or radiofrequency ablation is performed with curative intent.

    1. Members must either have hepatic metastases from a colorectal primary cancer or have a hepatocellular cancer; and
    2. Members must have isolated liver disease.  Members with nodal or extra-hepatic systemic metastases are not considered candidates for these procedures; and
    3. All tumors in the liver, as determined by pre-operative imaging, would be potentially destroyed by cryotherapy, microwave, or radiofrequency ablation; and 
    4. Because open surgical resection is the preferred treatment, members must be unacceptable open surgical candidates due to the location or extent of the liver disease or due to co-morbid conditions such that the member is unable to tolerate an open surgical resection; and
    5. Liver lesions must be 4 cm or less in diameter and occupy less than 50 % of the liver parenchyma.  Lesions larger than this may not be adequately treated by these procedures.

    Aetna considers cryosurgery, microwave, or radiofrequency ablation of hepatic lesions experimental and investigational when these criteria are not met.

  2. Aetna considers ablation medically necessary for unresectable neuroendocrine tumors metastatic to the liver.

  3. Aetna considers cryosurgery, microwave, or radiofrequency ablation as a treatment of hepatic metastases from non-colonic primary cancers experimental and investigational.  Additionally, cryosurgical, microwave or radiofrequency ablation as a palliative treatment of either hepatic metastases from colorectal cancer or hepatocellular cancer is also considered experimental and investigational because the effectiveness of these approaches for these indications has not been established.

  4. Aetna considers combinational treatment of radiofrequency ablation and transcatheter arterial chemo-embolization for the treatment of unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma experimental and investigational because the effectiveness of this approach has not been established.

See also CPB 0268 - Liver Neoplasms - Treatment Approaches, and CPB 0492 - Radiofrequency Tumor Ablation.


The liver is the most common site of distant metastasis from colorectal cancer.  About 25 % of patients with liver metastases from colorectal cancer have no other sites of metastasis and can be treated with regional therapies directed toward their liver tumors.  Based on a preponderance of uncontrolled studies for hepatic metastatic colorectal carcinoma, surgical resection offers the only potential for cure of selected patients with completely resected disease, with 5-year survival rates of 25 % to 46 %; however, the majority of patients with primary or metastatic malignancies confined to the liver are not candidates for resection because of tumor size, location, or multi-focality or inadequate functional hepatic reserve.  For the treatment of patients with non-resectable liver metastases, alternative local ablative therapeutic modalities have been developed.  For most patients with spread of metastatic colorectal cancer beyond the liver, systemic chemotherapy rather than regional therapy is a more appropriate option.

Cryotherapy is an effective and precise technique for inducing tumor necrosis, but it is currently performed via laparotomy.  Recent results suggest that ultrasound-guided radiofrequency thermal ablation may be an effective, minimally invasive technique for treating malignant hepatic tumors.  Both interventional therapeutic techniques have been shown to result in a remarkable local tumor control rate with improved survival results for patients with liver metastases from colorectal cancer.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE, 2004) guidance on radiofrequency ablation (RFA) for the treatment of colorectal metastases to the liver stated that: "Current evidence on the safety of radiofrequency ablation of colorectal metastases in the liver appears adequate.  However, the evidence of its effect on survival is not yet adequate to support the use of this procedure without special arrangements for consent and for audit or research".  In patients who are not eligible for traditional surgery, RFA can be used to destroy liver tumors.  However, existing evidence does not conclusively support the effectiveness of RFA in improving patient survival.

The NICE guidance on cryotherapy of liver tumors concludes (NICE, 2010) that "current evidence on the safety of cryotherapy for the treatment of liver metastases appears
adequate in the context of treating patients whose condition has such a poor prognosis, but the evidence on efficacy is inadequate in quality.  Therefore cryotherapy for the treatment of liver metastases should only be used with special arrangements for clinical governance, consent and audit or research."

Jungraithmayr et al (2005) stated that local ablative procedures such as cryosurgery and thermo-ablation are increasingly employed as a supplement to liver resection for the treatment of primary and secondary liver tumors.  However, it is still unclear whether the survival time can be extended through local ablative procedures.  In this prospective study (n = 19), these investigators reported operative actions, complications and long-term follow-up of patients with malignant liver tumors undergoing cryotherapy.  Subjects underwent cryotherapy due to a non-resectable malignant liver tumor (17 subjects with metastases of a colon carcinoma, and 2 subjects with a hepatocellular carcinoma).  A total of 12 patients (63.2 %) received cryotherapy only, and 7 patients (36.8 %) received a combination of resection and cryotherapy.  The median follow-up period was 23 months.  The 30-day mortality was 0 %, and the rate of major complications was 21 %.  After 1 year, 27.3 % of the patients were still recurrence-free.  The recurrence rate for all tumors treated was 58.8 %.  The median survival time for all patients was 21 months.  The 1- and 3-year survival rates were 62.5 % and 15.8 %, respectively.  The authors concluded that the mortality for cryotherapy is low, but there is a high rate of complications and long-term tumor control is insufficient.  If local ablative procedures of hepatic lesions are to be performed, not laparotomy but percutaneous, percutaneous thermoablation should be discussed as an alternative therapeutic measure.

Microwave energy can also be used to destroy liver neoplasms.  Microwave ablation destroys tumor cells by heat, resulting in localized areas of necrosis and tissue destruction.  Guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE, 2006) concluded that there is sufficient evidence of the safety and effectiveness of microwave ablation of hepatocellular carcinoma.  This conclusion was based upon the results of non-randomized controlled studies of microwave ablation of hepatocellular carcinoma that found similar outcomes to liver resection (Midorikawa et al, 2005), percutaneous ethanol injection (Seki et al, 1999), and radiofrequency ablation (Lu et al, 2005).  However, NICE (2007) found insufficient evidence of the safety and effectiveness of microwave ablation of colorectal cancer metastatic to the liver and other liver metastases.  One small randomized controlled clinical trial (n = 30) found similar overall and disease-free survival with liver resection and microwave ablation of liver metastases (Shibata et al, 2000).  Other uncontrolled case series reported similar results with microwave ablation of liver metastases (Liang et al, 2003; Morikawa et al, 2002).

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN, 2007) hepatocellular carcinoma guidelines state that microwave ablation, cryotherapy, RFA, and percutaneous ethanol injection may be used in the treatment of unresectable non-metastatic hepatocellular carcinoma, for patients with non-metastatic hepatocellular carcinoma who do not agree to surgery, and to treat hepatocellular carcinoma which is local but inoperable (e.g., due to poor performance status or presence of comorbidity).  The NCCN guidelines make no distinction with respect to these different ablative methods.  The guidelines state that ablative therapy of colorectal cancer metastases to the liver using RFA or cryosurgery at the time of colon resection can also be considered when all measurable metastatic disease can be treated.

Kornprat et al (2007) examined the role of intra-operative thermoablation combined with resection in the treatment of hepatic metastasis from colorectal cancer.  Patients with colorectal hepatic metastases underwent hepatic resection combined with thermoablation, either cryosurgical ablation (CSA) or RFA.  Main outcome measures included local recurrence rates at ablation sites, overall survival, disease-free survival, and hepatic disease-free survival.  A total of 665 patients were enrolled in this study.  Of these, 39 (5.9 %) had additional intra-operative thermoablative procedures (19 RFA, 20 CSA).  There was 1 (3 %) post-operative death not directly associated with the ablation, and the total morbidity rate was 41 % (16 of 39).  No RFA-related complication occurred; however, 3 patients developed an abscess at cryoablation sites.  Actuarial 3-year survival was 47 % for the entire group, with a median follow-up of 21.1 months (range of 0.5 to 71.4 months).  The median disease-free survival was 12.3 months (range of 8.4 to 16.2 months).  Overall, the local in situ recurrence rate according to number of ablated tumors was 14 % for RFA and 12 % for CSA.  Tumor size correlated directly with recurrence (p = 0.02) in RFA-treated lesions.  The authors concluded that ablation combined with hepatic resection is rarely necessary or applicable.  However, in selected patients whose tumors were otherwise unresectable, additional use of ablation allows effective clearance of disease.  In these patients with extensive bilobar disease, recurrence rates are high, but long-term survival is encouraging and may be improved with aggressive post-operative chemotherapy.

Siperstein et al (2007) evaluated factors affecting long-term survival of patients undergoing RFA of colorectal hepatic metastases, with attention to evolving chemotherapy regimens.  A total of 235 patients with colorectal metastases who were not candidates for resection and/or failed chemotherapy underwent laparoscopic RFA.  Pre-operative risk factors for survival and pre- and post-operative chemotherapy exposure were analyzed.  A total of 234 patients underwent 292 RFA sessions at an average of 8 months after initiation of chemotherapy.  Twenty-three percent had extra-hepatic disease pre-operatively.  Patients averaged 2.8 lesions, with a dominant diameter of 3.9 cm.  Kaplan-Meier actuarial survival was 24 months, with actual 3 and 5 years survival of 20.2 % and 18.4 %, respectively.  Median survival was improved for patients with less than or equal to 3 versus greater than 3 lesions (27 versus 17 months, p = 0.0018); dominant size less than 3 versus greater than 3 cm (28 versus 20 months, p = 0.07); chorioembryonic antigen less than 200 versus greater than 200 ng/ml (26 versus 16 months, p = 0.003).  Presence of extra-hepatic disease (p = 0.34) or type of pre-/post-operative chemotherapy (5-FU-leucovorin versus FOLFOX/FOLFIRI versus bevacizumab) (p = 0.11) did not alter median survival.  The authors concluded that the number and dominant size of metastases, and pre-operative chorioembryonic antigen value are strong predictors of survival.  Despite classic teaching, extra-hepatic disease did not adversely affect survival.  They stated that in this group of patients who failed chemotherapy, newer treatment regimens (pre- or post-operatively) had no survival benefit.  The actual 5-year survival of 18.4 % in these patients versus near zero survival for chemotherapy alone argues for a survival benefit of RFA.

In a review on the use of RFA for the treatment of primary and metastatic liver tumors, Garrean et al (2008) concluded that although RFA has been readily adopted into treatment paradigms, more rigorous trials are needed to solidify its place in the armamentarium of therapeutic strategies for hepatic malignancy.

In a systematic review on the current role of RFA in the management of hepatocellular carcinoma, Lau and Lai (2009) concluded that the evidence in the medical literature showed RFA was more effective than other local ablative therapies, and supported its use in the treatment of unresectable small hepatocellular carcinoma, recurrent small hepatocellular carcinoma, and as bridging therapy before liver transplantation, and as a primary treatment in competition with partial hepatectomy for resectable small hepatocellular carcinoma.

Stang et al (2009) performed a systematic review on the clinical benefit and role of RFA as treatment of colorectal liver metastases (CLMs).  A PubMed literature search for original articles published until August 2008 was performed.  Studies with 40 patients, 18-month median follow-up and reported 3 year overall survival (OS) rates after RFA of CLM were selected for analysis.  A total of 13 clinical series and 8 non-randomized comparative studies were analyzed.  Median progression-free survival (PGS) after RFA ranged between 6 and 13 months.  Median and 5-year OS after RFA (RFA plus resection) ranged between 24 to 59 months and 18 to 40 % (36 to 46 months and 27 to 30 %).  Comparative studies indicated significantly improved OS after RFA versus chemotherapy alone, RFA plus chemotherapy versus RFA alone and up-front RFA versus RFA following second-line chemotherapy.  The authors concluded that these findings support that RFA prolongs time without toxicity and survival as an adjunct to hepatectomy and/or chemotherapy in well-selected patients, but not as an alternative to resection.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) published a systematic review on the effectiveness of RFA for hepatic metastases from colorectal cancer (CRHM).  Because data were considered insufficient to form the basis of a practice guideline, ASCO has instead published a clinical evidence review.  The evidence is from single-arm, retrospective, and prospective trials.  No randomized controlled trials have been included.  The following 3 clinical issues were considered by the panel: (i) the efficacy of surgical hepatic resection versus RFA for resectable tumors; (ii) the utility of RFA for unresectable tumors; and (iii) RFA approaches (open, laparoscopic, or percutaneous).  Evidence suggested that hepatic resection improves OS, particularly for patients with resectable tumors without extra-hepatic disease.  Careful patient and tumor selection was discussed at length in the literature.  Investigators who use RFA reported a wide variability in the 5-year survival rate (14 % to 55 %) and local tumor recurrence rate (3.6 % to 60 %).  The reported mortality rate was low (0 % to 2 %), and the major complications rate was commonly reported to be between 6 % and 9 %.  Radiofrequency ablation is currently performed with all 3 approaches.  The authors concluded that there is a compelling need for more research to determine the efficacy and utility of RFA to increase local recurrence-free survival, PRS, and disease-free survival as well as OS for patients with CRHM.  Clinical trials have established that hepatic resection can improve OS for patients with resectable CRHM (Wong et al, 2010).

Guidelines on neuroendocrine tumors from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN, 2009) stated that, for unresectable liver metastases from carcinoid tumors and islet cell tumors, locally ablative therapy is recommended.

Furthermore, the 2010 NCCN practice guideline on "hepatobiliary cancers" stated that the 2 most commonly used methods of ablation therapy are percutaneous ethanol injection and RFA.

Gasparini and associates (2012) assessed the effectiveness of a combination of percutaneous RFA, stop-flow and transcatheter arterial chemo-embolization (TACE) in the treatment of hepatic neoplasms.  From December 1997 to September 2000, a total of 34 patients with hepato-cellular carcinoma (HCC) underwent RF thermoablation treatment.  The choice of method was based on the type of lesion (HCC versus metastasis) and the following dimensional criteria: (i) RF without stop-flow associated with the injection of diagnostic lipiodol in the case of a single nodule with a maximum diameter smaller than 3 cm; (ii) RF with stop-flow of the hepatic artery associated with TACE in the case of a single nodule with a diameter greater than 3 cm; and (iii) RF with stop-flow of the hepatic artery associated with TACE in the case of 2 to 3 nodules, a subdivision was made into 2 groups according to the volume: smaller or greater than 80 ml.  Ten out of 34 patients affected by HCC with a diameter smaller than 3cm, treated only with RF, demonstrated 100 % necrosis in the follow-up period, which varied between 6 and 24 months (average of 10 months).  The remaining 24 patients affected by HCC and treated with RF associated with stop-flow and TACE showed responses related to the volume of the tumor:  (i) patients with a single nodule with a diameter of 3 to 5 cm showed 100 % necrosis; (ii) patients affected by multi-focal HCC with a maximum of 3 nodules and/or total tumor mass smaller than 80 ml, for a total of 9 lesions, showed 95 % necrosis; and (iii) patients affected by multi-focal HCC with more than 3 nodules (total mass less than 40 % of liver volume) or tumor mass greater than 80 ml, for a total of 13 lesions, showed 90 % necrosis.  In the group of patients affected by multiple nodules with volumes smaller than 80 ml, the technique did not show complete effectiveness, thus these patients cannot be considered cured.  Such aspects were even clearer in the more advanced stages.  The authors concluded that in this case study, RF proved effective with lesions up to 3 cm in diameter.  By reducing thermal dispersion, the association of the stop-flow technique with RFA, determined a greater volume of necrosis, which allows effective treatment of single nodules with a diameter of up to 5 cm and/or multiple nodules.  The association with TACE:  (i) provided a way to high-light and treat lesions not recognizable through other imaging techniques; (ii) increased the accumulation of lipid contrast in the tissue surrounding the lesion and in the vessels not occluded by thermal ablation in the lesions with diameters greater than 3 cm; (iii) enabled further treatment of tumor residue possibly left untouched by thermal ablation in large tumors; and (iv) increased the amount of lipiodol accumulated in normal tissue surrounding the lesion, made evident through the comparison of the dimensions of the nodule's blush between angiography and lipiodol CT.  These preliminary findings need to be validated by well-designed studies.

Peng et al (2013) compared RFA with or without TACE in the treatment of HCC.  A randomized controlled trial was conducted on 189 patients with HCC less than 7 cm at a single tertiary referral center between October 2006 and June 2009.  Patients were randomly assigned to receive TACE combined with RFA (TACE-RFA; n = 94) or RFA alone (n = 95).  The primary end point was OS.  The secondary end point was recurrence-free survival, and the tertiary end point was adverse effects.  At a follow-up of 7 to 62 months, 34 patients in the TACE-RFA group and 48 patients in the RFA group had died.  Thirty-three (35.1 %) patients and 52 (54.7 %) patients had developed recurrence in the TACE-RFA group and RFA group, respectively.  The 1-, 3-, and 4-year OS for the TACE-RFA group and the RFA group were 92.6 %, 66.6 %, and 61.8 % and 85.3 %, 59 %, and 45.0 %, respectively.  The corresponding recurrence-free survivals were 79.4 %, 60.6 %, and 54.8 % and 66.7 %, 44.2 %, and 38.9 %, respectively.  Patients in the TACE-RFA group had better OS and recurrence-free survival than patients in the RFA group (hazard ratio, 0.525; 95 % confidence intervals [CI]: 0.335 to 0.822; p = 0.002; hazard ratio, 0.575; 95 % CI: 0.374 to 0.897; p = 0.009, respectively).  There were no treatment-related deaths.  On logistic regression analyses, treatment allocation, tumor size, and tumor number were significant prognostic factors for OS, whereas treatment allocation and tumor number were significant prognostic factors for recurrence-free survival.   The authors concluded that TACE-RFA was superior to RFA alone in improving survival for patients with HCC less than 7 cm.  The main drawbacks of this study were: (i) small sample size, (ii) not double-blinded, (iii) single-center experience, and the results may not be generalizable, and (iv) the majority of subjects had 1 or 2 lesions, and almost 50 % of them had a tumor of less than or equal to 3 cm.

In an editorial that accompanied the afore-mentioned study, Zhu and Salem (2013) stated that “Findings from this study require confirmation by others globally …. because only approximately 50 % of lesions were larger than 3 cm and there were no specification on the number of patients with lesion size from 3 to 7 cm, it remained unclear whether the benefits of TACE-RFA were only applicable to smaller lesions (i.e., less than 5 cm), as has been previously suggested.  Likewise, because 62 % to 67 % of patients enrolled onto this study had only one lesion, the relative benefits of combined TACE-RFA in patients with multifocal disease remain to be defined.  Finally, there was treatment cross-over in each arm, potentially confounding survival outcomes …. However, despite the available data on tolerability and safety, efficacy data for this combined approach is either negative or pending”.

In a pilot study, Iezzi and colleagues (2013) evaluated the feasibility, safety and effectiveness of a new combined single-step therapy in patients with unresectable multi-nodular unilobar HCC, with at least 1 lesion greater than 3 cm, with balloon-occluded RFA (BO-RFA) plus TACE of the main lesion and TACE of the other lesions.  The second purpose of this study was to compare the initial effects in terms of tumor necrosis of this new combined therapy with those obtained in a matched population treated with TACE alone in a single-step treatment in the authors’ center in the previous year.  This study was approved by the institutional review board, and informed consent was obtained from all patients.  A total of 10 consecutive patients with multi-nodular (2 to 6 nodules) unilobar unresectable HCC and with a main target lesion of greater than 3 cm (range of 3.5 to 6 cm) not suitable for curative therapy were enrolled in this single-center multi-disciplinary pilot study.  The schedule consisted of percutaneous RFA (single 3-cm monopolar needle insertion) of the target lesion during occlusion of the hepatic artery supplying the tumor, followed by selective TACE, plus lobar TACE for other lesions (450-mg carboplatin and lipiodol plus temporary embolization with SPONGOSTAN).  Adverse events and intra- and peri-procedural complications were clinically assessed.  Early local effectiveness was evaluated on 1-month follow-up multi-phasic computed tomography (CT) on the basis of the Modified Response Evaluation Criteria in Solid Tumors (m-RECIST).  A separate evaluation of target lesions in terms of enhancement, necrotic diameter and presence and distribution of lipiodol uptake was also performed.  No major complications occurred.  Overall technical success, defined as complete de-vascularization of all nodules during the arterial phase, was achieved in 7 of 10 patients, with 3 cases of partial response (persistence of small hyper-vascular nodules).  When considering only target lesions, technical success was obtained in all patients, with a non-enhancing area corresponding in shape to the previously identified HCC (necrotic diameter, 3.5 to 5 cm) and with circumferential peripheral lipiodol uptake (safety margin) of at least 0.5 cm (0.5 to 1.3cm).  The authors concluded that TACE and BO-RFA, plus TACE in a single-step approach appears to be a safe and effective combined therapy for treating advanced, unresectable HCC lesions, allowing a high rate of complete local response to be achieved in large lesions also.

CPT Codes / HCPCS Codes / ICD-9 Codes
CPT codes covered if selection criteria are met:
CPT codes not covered for indications listed in the CPB:
Other CPT codes related to the CPB:
Other HCPCS codes related to the CPB:
C1886 Catheter, extravascular tissue ablation, any modality (insertable)
ICD-9 codes covered if selection criteria are met:
153.0 - 154.1 Malignant neoplasm of colon and rectum [isolated with liver metastases]
155.0 Malignant neoplasm of liver, primary
209.72 Secondary neuroendocrine tumor of liver [unresectable with liver metastases]
230.8 Carcinoma in situ, liver and biliary system [hepatocellular cancer]

The above policy is based on the following references:
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