Background & aims: Small liver nodules approximately 2 cm are difficult to characterize by radiologic or pathologic examination. Our aim was to identify a molecular signature to diagnose early hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).
Methods: The transcriptional profiles of 55 candidate genes were assessed by quantitative real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) in 17 dysplastic nodules (diameter, 10 mm) and 20 early HCC (diameter, 18 mm) from HCV cirrhotic patients undergoing resection/transplantation and 10 nontumoral cirrhotic tissues and 10 normal liver tissues. Candidate genes were confirmed by quantitative RT-PCR in 20 advanced HCCs and by immunohistochemistry in 75 samples and validated in an independent set of 29 samples (dysplastic nodules  and small HCC [19; diameter, 20 mm]).
Results: Twelve genes were significantly, differentially expressed in early HCCs compared with dysplastic nodules (>2-fold change; area under the receiver operating characteristic curve > or =0.8): this included TERT, GPC3, gankyrin, survivin, TOP2A, LYVE1, E-cadherin, IGFBP3, PDGFRA, TGFA, cyclin D1, and HGF. Logistic regression analysis identified a 3-gene set including GPC3 (18-fold increase in HCC, P = .01), LYVE1 (12-fold decrease in HCC, P = .0001), and survivin (2.2-fold increase in HCC, P = .02), which had a discriminative accuracy of 94%. The validity of the gene signature was confirmed in a prospective testing set. GPC3 immunostaining was positive in all HCCs and negative in dysplastic nodules (22/22 vs 0/14, respectively, P < .001). Nuclear staining for survivin was positive in 12 of 13 advanced HCC cases and in 1 of 9 early tumors.
Conclusions: Molecular data based on gene transcriptional profiles of a 3-gene set allow a reliable diagnosis of early HCC. Immunostaining of GPC3 confirms the diagnosis of HCC.