Prospective and longitudinal epidemiological evidence is needed to assess the association between telomere length and risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). In 323 cancer-free Korean-American HBV patients with 1-year exclusion window (followed for >1 year and did not develop HCC within 1 year), we measured the relative telomere length (RTL) in baseline serum DNAs and conducted extensive prospective and longitudinal analyses to assess RTL-HCC relationship. We found that long baseline RTL conferred an increased HCC risk compared to short RTL [hazard ratio (HR) = 4.93, P = 0.0005). The association remained prominent when the analysis was restricted to patients with a more stringent 5-year exclusion window (HR = 7.51, P = 0.012), indicating that the association was unlikely due to including undetected HCC patients in the cohort, thus minimizing the reverse-causation limitation in most retrospective studies. Adding baseline RTL to demographic variables increased the discrimination accuracy of the time-dependent receiver operating characteristic analysis from 0.769 to 0.868 (P = 1.0 × 10-5). In a nested longitudinal subcohort of 16 matched cases-control pairs, using a mixed effects model, we observed a trend of increased RTL in cases and decreased RTL in controls along 5 years of follow-up, with a significant interaction of case/control status with time (P for interaction=0.002) and confirmed the association between long RTL and HCC risk [odds ratio [OR] = 3.63, P = 0.016]. In summary, serum DNA RTL may be a novel non-invasive prospective marker of HBV-related HCC. Independent studies are necessary to validate and generalize this finding in diverse populations and assess the clinical applicability of RTL in HCC prediction.
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