For patients presenting with hepatocellular carcinoma within the Milan criteria, either liver resection or liver transplantation can be performed. However, to what extent either of these treatment options is superior in terms of long-term survival is unknown. Obviously, the comparison of these treatments is complicated by several selection processes. In this article, we comprehensively review the current literature with a focus on factors accounting for selection bias. Thus far, studies that did not perform an intention-to-treat analysis conclude that liver transplantation is superior to liver resection for early-stage hepatocellular carcinoma. In contrast, studies performing an intention-to-treat analysis state that survival is comparable between both modalities. Furthermore, all studies demonstrate that disease-free survival is longer after liver transplantation compared to liver resection. With respect to the latter, implications of recurrences for survival are rarely discussed. Heterogeneous treatment effects and logical inconsistencies indicate that studies with a higher level of evidence are needed to determine if liver transplantation offers a survival benefit over liver resection. However, randomised controlled trials, as the golden standard, are believed to be infeasible. Therefore, we suggest an alternative research design from the causal inference literature. The rationale for a regression discontinuity design that exploits the natural experiment created by the widely adopted Milan criteria will be discussed. In this type of study, the analysis is focused on liver transplantation patients just within the Milan criteria and liver resection patients just outside, hereby ensuring equal distribution of confounders.
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