Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) accounts for ~85% of primary liver cancer cases and is a leading cause of mortality worldwide. Effective early diagnosis is difficult for HCC; however, effective biomarkers may be beneficial for diagnosis. In the current study, serum samples, and HCC and adjacent tissue samples were obtained from patients with HCC for the detection of biomarkers using 2‑D gel electrophoresis (2‑DE) and matrix‑assisted laser desorption/ionization‑time of flight (TOF)/TOF mass spectrometry. The crude serum samples did not need to be prepared for removal of high abundance proteins. The mRNA expression levels of HCC‑associated proteins were detected in tissues using reverse transcription‑quantitative PCR. Statistical analysis and database matching were used to identify the differentially expressed proteins detected in the serum and tissue groups. Immunohistochemistry (IHC) was performed to detect the expression of significant proteins in HCC and adjacent tissues. The results revealed ~800 protein spots on a 2‑DE gel that were detected in serum samples, and 1,200 spots were identified in the tissue samples. The protein and mRNA expression levels of oxysterol binding protein‑like 11 (OSBPL11) in HCC serum and tissue samples were consistent. Pathway analysis demonstrated that members of the apolipoprotein family, particularly apolipoprotein E (APOE), and RAS family members were closely associated in HCC, either directly or via ferratin heavy polypeptide 1. IHC results demonstrated that the APOE protein serves an important role in liver cancer development. The lysis buffer used in the current study was effective for serum protein separation in 2‑DE sample preparation. In addition, the present study revealed that downregulated OSBPL11 may be a potential indicator for HCC, and the apolipoprotein family, particularly APOE, and the RAS family may cooperatively serve an important role.