Molecular characterisation of hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis

J Hepatol. 2021 Oct;75(4):865-878. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2021.04.049. Epub 2021 May 13.


Background and aims: Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)-related hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is increasing globally, but its molecular features are not well defined. We aimed to identify unique molecular traits characterising NASH-HCC compared to other HCC aetiologies.

Methods: We collected 80 NASH-HCC and 125 NASH samples from 5 institutions. Expression array (n = 53 NASH-HCC; n = 74 NASH) and whole exome sequencing (n = 52 NASH-HCC) data were compared to HCCs of other aetiologies (n = 184). Three NASH-HCC mouse models were analysed by RNA-seq/expression-array (n = 20). Activin A receptor type 2A (ACVR2A) was silenced in HCC cells and proliferation assessed by colorimetric and colony formation assays.

Results: Mutational profiling of NASH-HCC tumours revealed TERT promoter (56%), CTNNB1 (28%), TP53 (18%) and ACVR2A (10%) as the most frequently mutated genes. ACVR2A mutation rates were higher in NASH-HCC than in other HCC aetiologies (10% vs. 3%, p <0.05). In vitro, ACVR2A silencing prompted a significant increase in cell proliferation in HCC cells. We identified a novel mutational signature (MutSig-NASH-HCC) significantly associated with NASH-HCC (16% vs. 2% in viral/alcohol-HCC, p = 0.03). Tumour mutational burden was higher in non-cirrhotic than in cirrhotic NASH-HCCs (1.45 vs. 0.94 mutations/megabase; p <0.0017). Compared to other aetiologies of HCC, NASH-HCCs were enriched in bile and fatty acid signalling, oxidative stress and inflammation, and presented a higher fraction of Wnt/TGF-β proliferation subclass tumours (42% vs. 26%, p = 0.01) and a lower prevalence of the CTNNB1 subclass. Compared to other aetiologies, NASH-HCC showed a significantly higher prevalence of an immunosuppressive cancer field. In 3 murine models of NASH-HCC, key features of human NASH-HCC were preserved.

Conclusions: NASH-HCCs display unique molecular features including higher rates of ACVR2A mutations and the presence of a newly identified mutational signature.

Lay summary: The prevalence of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) associated with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is increasing globally, but its molecular traits are not well characterised. In this study, we uncovered higher rates of ACVR2A mutations (10%) - a potential tumour suppressor - and the presence of a novel mutational signature that characterises NASH-related HCC.

Keywords: animal model; liver cancer; metabolic syndrome; molecular class; mutational signature; obesity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / etiology
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / genetics*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / etiology
  • Liver Neoplasms / genetics
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Molecular Biology / methods
  • Molecular Biology / statistics & numerical data*
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease / complications
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease / genetics*
  • Risk Factors