Utility of Liquid Biopsy Analysis in Detection of Hepatocellular Carcinoma, Determination of Prognosis, and Disease Monitoring: A Systematic Review

Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2020 Dec;18(13):2879-2902.e9. doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2020.04.019. Epub 2020 Apr 11.


Background & aims: Liquid biopsies, or blood samples, can be analyzed to detect circulating tumor cells (CTCs), cell-free DNA (cfDNA), and extracellular vesicles, which might identify patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) or help determine their prognoses. We performed a systematic review of studies of analyses of liquid biopsies from patients with HCC and their comparisons with other biomarkers.

Methods: We performed a systematic review of original studies published before December 1, 2019. We included studies that compared liquid biopsies alone and in combination with other biomarkers for the detection of HCC, performed multivariate analyses of the accuracy of liquid biopsy analysis in determining patient prognoses, or evaluated the utility of liquid biopsy analysis in monitoring treatment response.

Results: Our final analysis included 112 studies: 67 on detection, 46 on determining prognosis, and 25 on treatment monitoring or selection. Ten studies evaluated assays that characterized cfDNA for detection of HCC in combination with measurement of α-fetoprotein (AFP)-these studies found that the combined measurement of cfDNA and AFP more accurately identified patients with HCC than measurement of AFP alone. Six studies evaluated assays for extracellular vesicles and 2 studies evaluated assays for CTC in detection of HCC, with and without other biomarkers-most of these studies found that detection of CTCs or extracellular vesicles with AFP more accurately identified patients with HCC than measurement of AFP alone. Detection of CTCs before surgery was associated with HCC recurrence after resection in 13 of 14 studies; cfDNA and extracellular vesicles have been studied less frequently as prognostic factors. Changes in CTC numbers before vs after treatment more accurately identify patients with HCC recurrence than pretreatment counts alone, and measurements of cfDNA can identify patients with disease recurrence or progression before changes can be detected by imaging. We found little evidence that analyses of liquid biopsies can aid in the selection of treatment for HCC. Quality assessment showed risk of bias in studies of HCC detection and determination of prognosis.

Conclusions: In a systematic review of 112 studies of the accuracy of liquid biopsy analysis, we found that assays for CTCs and cfDNA might aid in determining patient prognoses and monitoring HCC, and assays for cfDNA might aid in HCC detection, but there is a risk of bias in these studies. Studies must be standardized before we can assess the clinical utility of liquid biopsy analysis in the detection and management of patients with HCC.

Keywords: Liver Cancer; Outcome; Prediction; Therapy.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural