Biliary tract neoplasms: update 2003

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Purpose of review

Biliary tract neoplasm is one of the most aggressive malignancies, with a very poor prognosis. Most cancers of the biliary tract will have grown beyond the limits of curative resection by the time they become clinically evident. This reality has fostered therapeutic nihilism, and most physicians and surgeons, in their pessimism, have to run ambitious trials evaluating new diagnostic tools and therapeutic techniques in this disease.

Recent findings

Advances in imaging over the period of the last 5 years now allow for earlier diagnosis and better surgical planning. Recent improvements in operative technique have substantially improved the outlook of patients with this cancer. Palliative management of obstructive disease recently has been improved with the advent of photodynamic therapy. Among the different drugs tested in this disease, gemcitabine seems to have the best efficacy:toxicity ratio. However, efficacy results remain disappointing, and combination schedules need to be developed to improve the results. Among them, the gemcitabine-oxaliplatin combination seems to be one of the most promising schedules. Biological studies, especially those evaluating mutation-independent activation of the Hedgehog pathway, have provided interesting information on the carcinogenesis of this rare tumor. Furthermore, these results bring us the opportunity of development of future targeted therapies in biliary tract cancer.


Biliary tract neoplasm remains one of the most aggressive malignancies. However, as for other gastrointestinal malignancies, biological studies and diagnostic and therapeutic improvements have provided interesting results that could lead to a major improvement in the prognosis of this disease.

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