Tumor initiation and progression in hepatocellular carcinoma: risk factors, classification, and therapeutic targets

Acta Pharmacol Sin. 2010 Nov;31(11):1409-20. doi: 10.1038/aps.2010.142. Epub 2010 Oct 18.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a major health problem worldwide responsible for 500 000 deaths annually. A number of risk factors are associated with either the induction of the disease or its progression; these include infection with hepatitis B or C virus, alcohol consumption, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis and certain congenital disorders. In around 80% of the cases, HCC is associated with cirrhosis or advanced fibrosis and with inflammation and oxidative stress. In this review we focus firstly on the different risk factors for HCC and summarize the mechanisms by which each is considered to contribute to HCC. In the second part we look at the molecular processes involved in cancer progression. HCC development is recognized as a multistep process that normally develops over many years. Over this period several mutations accumulate in the cell and that stimulate malign transformation, growth, and metastatic behavior. Over the recent years it has become evident that not only the tumor cell itself but also the tumor microenviroment plays a major role in the development of a tumor. There is a direct link between the role of inflammation and cirrhosis with this microenviroment. Both in vitro and in vivo it has been shown that tumor formation and metastatic properties are linked to epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), a process by which facillitates the tumor cell's attempts to migrate to a more favourable microenviroment. Several groups have analyzed the gene expression in HCC and its surrounding tissue by microarray and this has resulted in the molecular classification into a distinct number of classes. Here we also found a role for hypoxia induced gene expression leading to a clinically more aggressive gene expression in HCC. Molecular analysis also helped to identify important cellular pathways and possible therapeutic targets. The first molecule that in this way has shown clinical application for liver cancer is the multikinase inhibitor sorafenib, others are currently in different stages of clinical studies like the mTOR inhibitor everolimus.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / classification
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / drug therapy
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / etiology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic
  • Disease Progression
  • Hepatitis / complications
  • Hepatitis / pathology
  • Humans
  • Liver Cirrhosis / complications
  • Liver Cirrhosis / pathology
  • Liver Neoplasms* / classification
  • Liver Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Liver Neoplasms* / etiology
  • Risk Factors