Background: Circulating microRNAs (miRNA) are biomarkers for several neoplastic diseases, including hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). We performed a literature search, followed by experimental screening and validation in order to establish a miRNA panel in combination with the assessment of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) levels and to evaluate its performance in HCC diagnostics.
Methods: Expression of miRNAs was quantified by quantitative PCR (qPCR) in 406 serum samples from 118 Vietnamese patients with hepatitis B (HBV)-related HCC, 69 patients with HBV-related liver cirrhosis (LC), 100 chronic hepatitis B (CHB) patients and 119 healthy controls (HC).
Results: Three miRNAs (mir-21, mir-122, mir-192) were expressed differentially among the studied subgroups and positively correlated with AFP levels. The individual miRNAs mir-21, mir-122, mir192 or the triplex miRNA panel showed high diagnostic accuracy for HCC (HCC vs. CHB, AUC = 0.906; HCC vs. CHB+LC, AUC = 0.81; HCC vs. CHB+LC+HC, AUC = 0.854). When AFP levels were ≤20ng/ml, the triplex miRNA panel still was accurate in distinguishing HCC from the other conditions (CHB, AUC = 0.922; CHB+LC, AUC = 0.836; CHB+LC+HC, AUC = 0.862). When AFP levels were used in combination with the triplex miRNA panel, the diagnostic performance was significantly improved in discriminating HCC from the other groups (LC, AUC = 0.887; CHB, AUC = 0.948; CHB+LC, AUC = 0.887).
Conclusions: The three miRNAs mir-21, mir-122, mir-192, together with AFP, are biomarkers that may be applied to improve diagnostics of HCC in HBV patients, especially in HBV-related LC patients with normal AFP levels or HCC patients with small tumor sizes.