Objective: To investigate whether circulating cancer stem cells (CSCs) of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) can predict its recurrence after hepatectomy.
Background: HCC recurrence frequently occurs within the first year after hepatectomy, probably due to circulating tumor cells that have been shed from the primary tumor before hepatectomy. Because CSCs are more likely to initiate tumor growth than mature cancer cells, a high level of circulating CSCs may be a hint for HCC recurrence.
Methods: Multicolor flow cytometry was used to detect the number of circulating CSCs (CD45CD90CD44) in the peripheral circulation of 82 HCC patients 1 day before hepatectomy. The patients were monitored by CT or MRI for recurrence every 3 months.
Results: Forty-one (50%) patients had recurrence after a median follow-up period of 13.2 months (range, 1.3-57.1 months). Patients with recurrence had a higher median level of circulating CSCs than patients without recurrence (0.02% vs. 0.01%; P < 0.0001). Circulating CSCs > 0.01% predicted intrahepatic recurrence (relative risk 3.54; 95% CI, 1.41-8.88; P = 0.007) and extrahepatic recurrence (relative risk 10.15; 95% CI, 3-34.4; P = 0.0002). Patients with >0.01% circulating CSCs had a lower 2-year recurrence-free survival rate (22.7% vs. 64.2%; P < 0.0001) and overall survival rate (58.5% vs. 94.1%; P = 0.0005) than patients with ≤0.01% circulating CSCs. On multivariable analysis, circulating CSCs > 0.01%, tumor stage and tumor size were independent factors predicting recurrence-free survival.
Conclusions: Circulating CSCs predicted posthepatectomy HCC recurrence with high accuracy. They may be the target of eradication in the prevention of posthepatectomy HCC metastasis and recurrence.