Hepatocellular nodules in cirrhosis include regenerative (large regenerative, LRN) and dysplastic (low and high grade, LGDN and HGDN) nodules, early and grade 1 HCC (eHCC-G1), and overt HCC. The differential diagnosis may be particularly difficult when lesions such as HGDN and eHCC-G1 are involved. We investigated the diagnostic yield of a panel of 3 putative markers of hepatocellular malignancy such as HSP70, glypican 3 (GPC3), and glutamine synthetase (GS). We selected 52 surgically removed nonmalignant nodules (15 LRNs, 15 LGDNs, 22 HGDNs) and 53 HCCs (10 early, 22 grade 1, and 21 grade 2-3) and immunostained them for HSP70, GPC3, and GS. The sensitivity and specificity of the individual markers for the detection of eHCC-G1 were 59% and 86% for GS, 69% and 91% for GPC3, and 78% and 95% for HSP70. We identified 2 main phenotypes: (1) all negative, seen in 100% LRN and LGDN, 73% HGDN and 3% eHCC-G1; (2) all positive, a feature detected in less than half the eHCC-G1. Using a 3-marker panel, when at least 2 of them, regardless which, were positive, the sensitivity and specificity for the detection of eHCC-G1 were respectively 72% and 100%; the most sensitive combination was HSP70+/GPC3+ (59%) when a 2-marker panel was used.
Conclusion: The adopted panel of 3 markers is very helpful in distinguishing eHCC-G1 from dysplastic nodules arising in cirrhosis.