Background & aims: Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) is widely used as a surveillance test for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) among patients with cirrhosis. Des-gamma carboxy-prothrombin (DCP) and lectin-bound AFP (AFP-L3%) are potential surveillance tests for HCC. The aims of this study were to determine performance of DCP and AFP-L3% for the diagnosis of early HCC; whether they complement AFP; and what factors affect DCP, AFP-L3%, or AFP levels.
Methods: We conducted a large phase 2 biomarker case-control study in 7 academic medical centers in the United States. Controls were patients with compensated cirrhosis and cases were patients with HCC. AFP, DCP, and AFP-L3% levels were measured blinded to clinical data in a central reference laboratory.
Results: A total of 836 patients were enrolled: 417 (50%) were cirrhosis controls and 419 (50%) were HCC cases, of which 208 (49.6%) had early stage HCC (n = 77 very early, n = 131 early). AFP had the best area under the receiver operating characteristic curve (0.80, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.77-0.84), followed by DCP (0.72, 95% CI: 0.68-0.77) and AFP-L3% (0.66, 95% CI: 0.62-0.70) for early stage HCC. The optimal AFP cutoff value was 10.9 ng/mL leading to a sensitivity of 66%. When only those with very early HCC were evaluated, the area under the receiver operating characteristic curve for AFP was 0.78 (95% CI: 0.72-0.85) leading to a sensitivity of 65% at the same cutoff.
Conclusions: AFP was more sensitive than DCP and AFP-L3% for the diagnosis of early and very early stage HCC at a new cutoff of 10.9 ng/mL.