New study to provide more effective treatment for primary liver cancer


In interdisciplinary collaboration, researchers and physicians at Uppsala University and the Uppsala University Hospital are looking for new ways to treat primary liver cancer, the second deadliest tumor disease in the world today. "I am convinced that we will deliver results that enable earlier diagnosis and improved survival," says Hans Lennernäs, Professor of Biopharmacy.

Hans Lennernäs, Jenny Nilsson (Lab Hedeland), Femke Heindryckx and Mikael Hedeland
Hans Lennernäs, Jenny Nilsson (Lab Hedeland), Femke Heindryckx and Mikael Hedeland

Bile duct and liver cancer are increasing rapidly worldwide. This negative trend includes primary liver cancer, a severe disease that often occurs in already damaged livers and is normally only diagnosed at a stage where treatment rarely slows the progress for more than a few months. It is currently the second deadliest form of tumor, but now researchers at Uppsala University in collaboration with colleagues at the Uppsala University Hospital have initiated a study expected to enable completely new therapeutic possibilities.

“Primary liver cancer often affects already vulnerable people and is traditionally treated with doxorubicin, which can cause harsh side effects. Due to availability, the Uppsala University Hospital Hospital has switched to idarubicin, and by analyzing tissue samples from patients we hope to identify predictors that can guide care through treatment and dosage in order to optimize the therapeutic effect,” says Hans Lennernäs, Professor of Biopharmacy at Uppsala University.

Charlotte Ebeling Barbier is leading the study
Charlotte Ebeling Barbier is leading the study

The ongoing study unites a number of research environments at Uppsala University’s Disciplinary Domain of Medicine and Pharmacy: The project group includes, among others, Charlotte Ebeling Barbier, Department of Surgical Sciences, leader of the study and conducting Interventional radiology. Femke Heindryckx at the Department of Medical Cell Biology is mapping how platelets that enter a cancerous liver can affect tumor growth and metastases, and at the Department of Medicinal Chemistry, Professor Mikael Hedeland and his team are seeking new knowledge about the interactions between drug-induced cell death and metabolism.

“We have treated three cell lines based on tumor samples with both doxorubicin and idarubicin, and our results suggest that the addition of polyunsaturated fatty acids can contribute to increased cell death in the treatment of liver cancer. Next, we will – in collaboration with Jonas Bergquist, Professor of Analytical Chemistry – examine proteins and small molecules, and it is stimulating to see our competence in Analytical Pharmaceutical Chemistry add such relevant value to this interdisciplinary and extremely important work,” states Mikael Hedeland.

Treatment of liver cancer is often carried out locally via injections in the groin. The drug is transported to the tumor in an emulsion consisting of water and oil, alternatively with the aid of microparticles loaded with the active substance. One central challenge in the study is to determine how these two methods are best utilized in order to optimize the concentration of cell-killing substances in the tumor tissue, a task currently being carried out by David Dahlgren, researcher in Translational drug development at Hans Lennernäs' laboratory.

Hans Lennernäs, Professor of Biopharmacy
Hans Lennernäs, Professor of Biopharmacy

“We have taken on a large and complex project that would not be possible without the interdisciplinary and generous collaboration that characterises Uppsala's Faculties of Pharmacy and Medicine and the Uppsala University Hospital. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I am convinced that we in the foreseeable future will present results that enable earlier diagnosis, individualized treatment and, above all, significantly improved survival rates,” says Hans Lennernäs.


  • Each year, 780,000 people are diagnosed with primary liver cancer and 745,000 die from the disease.
  • At the Uppsala University Hospital, the disease is currently treated with injections of idarubicin.
  • Researchers participating in the current study include: Hans Lennernäs, Mikael Hedeland, David Dahlgren, Ulrika Simonsson, Erik Sjögren, David Balgoma, Jenny Nilsson, Mikael Engskog, Håkan Ahlström, Angeliki Dimopoulou Creusen, Charlotte Ebeling Barbier, Femke Heindryckx, Ulf Johnson, Jaafar Khaled, Fredrik Kullenberg, Rickard Nyman, Fredrik Rorsman, Sofi Sennefelt Nyman, Reza Sheikhi and Alkwin Wanders.



Hans LennernäsHans Lennernäs, Professor
Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences

Mikael HedelandMikael Hedeland, Professor
Department of Medicinal Chemistry

Text: Magnus Alsne, photo: Mikael Wallerstedt. private, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

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Last modified: 2021-05-31