Biology of hepatocellular carcinoma

Ann Surg Oncol. 2008 Apr;15(4):962-71. doi: 10.1245/s10434-007-9730-z. Epub 2008 Jan 31.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a common cancer in the world due to high prevalence of hepatitis B or C virus infection. Research in recent years has uncovered important molecular pathways involved in development and progression of HCC. Several genetic aberrations and molecular mechanisms responsible for initiation of hepatocarcinogenesis have been identified. Novel biomarkers for HCC are being developed for better detection and prognostication. Alpha-fetoprotein, the conventional marker of HCC, has limited sensitivity and specificity. Serum levels of isoforms of AFP based on differential lectin binding of the glycan moiety appear to be more sensitive and specific than total AFP level in early detection of HCC. The clinical usefulness of other HCC biomarkers such as des-gamma-carboxy prothrombin and glypican-3 are under investigation. HCC is an aggressive tumor with early vascular invasion and metastasis. Studies over the past two decades have elucidated the clinical predictors of outcome, leading to several staging systems for HCC based on clinical parameters. However, the predictive accuracy of clinical staging systems is limited. Recent studies suggested that biological factors may provide additional prognostic information. In particular, gene expression profiling appears to be a promising approach. Study of tumor angiogenesis in HCC reveals that the expression of angiogenic factors such as vascular endothelial growth factor and angiopoietins may also predict prognosis. The elucidation of tumor biology of HCC is of particular importance in the current era of rapid development of anti-cancer molecular targeting agents, which provide hope for an effective systemic therapy for HCC.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Liver Neoplasms / physiopathology*


  • Biomarkers