Alcohol, one of the substances most damaging to the human liver, might also be a liver saver when injected directly into the organ to treat cancer, Italian researchers reported yesterday.

Physicians from the Ospedale Civile in Vimercate, Italy, told an international meeting of radiologists that a preliminary study of 15 patients with 20 small inoperable tumors showed pure alcohol injections eradicated or shrank all of the cancers without causing complications.

The procedure "could become an alternative to surgery if these preliminary results are confirmed by more research," said Dr. Tito Livraghi, who directed the research.

The liver is responsible for metabolizing alcohol -- ingested as beer, wine or liquor -- but alcohol is also one of the most toxic substances handled by the organ. Repeated, excessive exposure can lead to tissue scarring, cirrhosis and jaundice. Alcoholism is also considered a contributing factor in liver cancer, which strikes 13,600 and kills 10,600 in the United States every year.

But Livraghi and his colleagues have found pure alcohol may also be an effective treatment for liver cancer, if injected directly into small tumors with steel needles less than a millimeter in diameter.

The researchers chose ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, because it is readily available, inexpensive and easily injected.

The physicians were able to locate the tumors precisely using sonar-like devices emitting ultrasound, a sort of X-ray that bounces sound waves off organs to create images of internal structures. The ultrasound guidance allowed the physicians to confine their injections to the tumor itself, without damaging surrounding tissue.

Fifteen cancer patients were treated with the alcohol injections on an outpatient basis, with one or two sessions a week. The number of treatments ranged from three to 24.

The alcohol killed eight tumors and reduced 12 others in much the same way as it damages healthy liver tissue, by dehydrating the cells and clotting small blood vessels feeding the tumor, Livraghi said. Over a two-year follow-up, no recurrence of the disease was detected in any of the patients.