Background: Telomerase activity may be used as a molecular marker for the detection of circulating hepatoma cells in blood of patients with hepatoma.
Methods: Telomerase activity in peripheral blood from hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) patients was assessed by using a highly sensitive and non-radioisotope telomerase polymerase chain reaction (PCR) ELISA. Initially, tissue telomerase activity was measured in the hepatoma and non-tumour portions by using PCR ELISA within the same specimen, to compare its sensitivity with the conventional telomeric repeat amplification protocol (TRAP) method. Second, telomerase activity was measured in the peripheral blood obtained from patients with HCC, patients with chronic liver disease and in healthy controls.
Results: Of the 17 HCC patients, telomerase activity was found to be positive in 14 (82%) by using TRAP and 15 (88%) by using PCR ELISA, indicating that PCR ELISA is a reliable tool for the measurement of telomerase activity. By using the Telomerase PCR ELISA assay, telomerase activities in the peripheral blood of 20 HCC patients was 1.65 +/- 0.78 units. This was significantly greater than the results obtained for 20 chronic liver disease patients (0.43 +/- 0.36 units) and 20 healthy controls (0.39 +/- 0.14 units; P < 0.0001).When the arbitrary cut-off level was set at 0.7 units (maximum value of healthy controls + 0.1), the positive frequency of telomerase activity was 25% for chronic liver disease and 80% for HCC patients (sensitivity 80%, specificity 75%). Among the HCC patients, high telomerase activity in the peripheral blood was shown at stage III HCC with vascular invasion (2.10 +/- 0.62 units, n = 9). This was significantly higher than patients at stage II of HCC (1.28 +/- 0.72 units, n = 11, without vascular invasion; P = 0.012).
Conclusion: These results suggest that peripheral blood telomerase activity, which may reflect haematogenous micrometastasis, is potentially a practical diagnostic/predictive marker of HCC.