Validation of putative reference genes for gene expression studies in human hepatocellular carcinoma using real-time quantitative RT-PCR

BMC Cancer. 2008 Nov 27;8:350. doi: 10.1186/1471-2407-8-350.


Background: Reference genes, which are often referred to as housekeeping genes are frequently used to normalize mRNA levels between different samples in quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR). The selection of reference genes is critical for gene expression studies because the expression of these genes may vary among tissues or cells and may change under certain circumstances. Here, a systematic evaluation of six putative reference genes for gene expression studies in human hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is presented.

Methods: Six genes, beta-2-microglobulin (B2M), glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH), hydroxymethyl-bilane synthase (HMBS), hypoxanthine phosphoribosyl-transferase 1 (HPRT1), succinate dehydrogenase complex, subunit A (SDHA) and ubiquitin C (UBC), with distinct functional characteristics and expression patterns were evaluated by qRT-PCR. Inhibitory substances in RNA samples were quantitatively assessed and controlled using an external RNA control. The stability of selected reference genes was analyzed using both geNorm and NormFinder software.

Results: HMBS and GAPDH were identified as the optimal reference genes for normalizing gene expression data between paired tumoral and adjacent non-tumoral tissues derived from patients with HCC. HMBS, GAPDH and UBC were identified to be suitable for the normalization of gene expression data among tumor tissues; whereas the combination of HMBS, B2M, SDHA and GAPDH was suitable for normalizing gene expression data among five liver cancer cell lines, namely Hep3B, HepG2, HuH7, SK-HEP-1 and SNU-182. The determined gene stability was increased after exclusion of RNA samples containing relatively higher inhibitory substances.

Conclusion: Of six genes studied, HMBS was found to be the single best reference gene for gene expression studies in HCC. The appropriate choice of combination of more than one reference gene to improve qRT-PCR accuracy depends on the kind of liver tissues or cells under investigation. Quantitative assessment and control of qRT-PCR inhibitors using an external RNA control can reduce the variation of qRT-PCR assay and facilitate the evaluation of gene stability. Our results may facilitate the choice of reference genes for expression studies in HCC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / genetics*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Gene Expression Profiling / methods*
  • Gene Expression Profiling / standards*
  • Humans
  • Hydroxymethylbilane Synthase / genetics
  • Liver Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction


  • Hydroxymethylbilane Synthase