Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC): Epidemiology, etiology and molecular classification

Adv Cancer Res. 2021:149:1-61. doi: 10.1016/bs.acr.2020.10.001. Epub 2020 Nov 28.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the primary malignancy of hepatocytes, is a diagnosis with bleak outcome. According to National Cancer Institute's SEER database, the average five-year survival rate of HCC patients in the US is 19.6% but can be as low as 2.5% for advanced, metastatic disease. When diagnosed at early stages, it is treatable with locoregional treatments including surgical resection, Radio-Frequency Ablation, Trans-Arterial Chemoembolization or liver transplantation. However, HCC is usually diagnosed at advanced stages when the tumor is unresectable, making these treatments ineffective. In such instances, systemic therapy with tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) becomes the only viable option, even though it benefits only 30% of patients, provides only a modest (~3months) increase in overall survival and causes drug resistance within 6months. HCC, like many other cancers, is highly heterogeneous making a one-size fits all option problematic. The selection of liver transplantation, locoregional treatment, TKIs or immune checkpoint inhibitors as a treatment strategy depends on the disease stage and underlying condition(s). Additionally, patients with similar disease phenotype can have different molecular etiology making treatment responses different. Stratification of patients at the molecular level would facilitate development of the most effective treatment option. With the increase in efficiency and affordability of "omics"-level analysis, considerable effort has been expended in classifying HCC at the molecular, metabolic and immunologic levels. This review examines the results of these efforts and the ways they can be leveraged to develop targeted treatment options for HCC.

Keywords: Epidemiology; Hepatocellular carcinoma; Immunological classification; Metabolic classification; Molecular classification; Risks and causative factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / classification*
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / epidemiology
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / pathology
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / classification*
  • Liver Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Liver Neoplasms / genetics
  • Liver Neoplasms / pathology