Cellular heterogeneity and plasticity in liver cancer

Semin Cancer Biol. 2021 Feb 26;S1044-579X(21)00050-X. doi: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2021.02.015. Online ahead of print.


Hepatocarcinogenesis involves complex genetic and cellular dysregulations which drive the formation of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the predominant form of primary liver cancer, with extensive heterogeneity. In contrast to the broad spectrum of molecularly driven therapies available for defined patient groups in certain cancer types, unfortunately the treatment options for HCC are highly limited. The lack of representative molecular and cellular signatures in the heterogeneous HCC tumors that can effectively guide the choice of the most appropriate treatment among the patients unavoidably limits the treatment outcome. Advancement and wide availability of the next-generation sequencing technologies have empowered us to examine and capture not only the detailed genetic alterations of the HCC cells but also the precise composition of different cell types within the tumor microenvironment and their interactions with the HCC cells at an unprecedented level. The information generated has provided new insight and better defined the inter-patient intertumoral heterogeneity, intra-patient intratumoral heterogeneity as well as the plasticity of HCC cells. These collectively provide a robust scientific basis in guiding the development and use of targeted therapy and immunotherapy. To complement, liquid biopsy coupled with high-sensitivity sequencing could potentially be adopted as a more practical and safer approach to detect and reflect the tumor heterogeneity in HCC patients in guiding the choice of treatment and monitoring disease progression.

Keywords: Cancer therapy; Hepatocellular carcinoma; Heterogeneity; Liquid biopsy; Plasticity.