Non-invasive stratification of hepatocellular carcinoma risk in non-alcoholic fatty liver using polygenic risk scores

J Hepatol. 2021 Apr;74(4):775-782. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2020.11.024. Epub 2020 Nov 25.


Background & aims: Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) risk stratification in individuals with dysmetabolism is a major unmet need. Genetic predisposition contributes to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). We aimed to exploit robust polygenic risk scores (PRS) that can be evaluated in the clinic to gain insight into the causal relationship between NAFLD and HCC, and to improve HCC risk stratification.

Methods: We examined at-risk individuals (NAFLD cohort, n = 2,566; 226 with HCC; and a replication cohort of 427 German patients with NAFLD) and the general population (UK Biobank [UKBB] cohort, n = 364,048; 202 with HCC). Variants in PNPLA3-TM6SF2-GCKR-MBOAT7 were combined in a hepatic fat PRS (PRS-HFC), and then adjusted for HSD17B13 (PRS-5).

Results: In the NAFLD cohort, the adjusted impact of genetic risk variants on HCC was proportional to the predisposition to fatty liver (p = 0.002) with some heterogeneity in the effect. PRS predicted HCC more robustly than single variants (p <10-13). The association between PRS and HCC was mainly mediated through severe fibrosis, but was independent of fibrosis in clinically relevant subgroups, and was also observed in those without severe fibrosis (p <0.05). In the UKBB cohort, PRS predicted HCC independently of classical risk factors and cirrhosis (p <10-7). In the NAFLD cohort, we identified high PRS cut-offs (≥0.532/0.495 for PRS-HFC/PRS-5) that in the UKBB cohort detected HCC with ~90% specificity but limited sensitivity; PRS predicted HCC both in individuals with (p <10-5) and without cirrhosis (p <0.05).

Conclusions: Our results are consistent with a causal relationship between hepatic fat and HCC. PRS improved the accuracy of HCC detection and may help stratify HCC risk in individuals with dysmetabolism, including those without severe liver fibrosis. Further studies are needed to validate our findings.

Lay summary: By analyzing variations in genes that contribute to fatty liver disease, we developed two risk scores to help predict liver cancer in individuals with obesity-related metabolic complications. These risk scores can be easily tested in the clinic. We showed that the risk scores helped to identify the risk of liver cancer both in high-risk individuals and in the general population.

Keywords: Biomarker; Cirrhosis; Genetics; Hepatic fat; Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adiposity*
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / epidemiology
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / pathology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Europe / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Liver / pathology*
  • Liver Cirrhosis / metabolism
  • Liver Cirrhosis / pathology
  • Liver Neoplasms* / epidemiology
  • Liver Neoplasms* / metabolism
  • Liver Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Male
  • Mediation Analysis
  • Middle Aged
  • Multifactorial Inheritance / genetics
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease* / diagnosis
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease* / epidemiology
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease* / genetics
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prognosis
  • Risk Assessment / methods*
  • Risk Factors