Computed tomography for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma in adults with chronic liver disease

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021 Oct 6;10(10):CD013362. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD013362.pub2.


Background: Hepatocellular carcinoma occurs mostly in people with chronic liver disease and ranks sixth in terms of global incidence of cancer, and fourth in terms of cancer deaths. In clinical practice, computed tomography (CT) is used as a second-line diagnostic imaging modality to confirm the presence of focal liver lesions suspected as hepatocellular carcinoma on prior diagnostic test such as abdominal ultrasound or alpha-foetoprotein, or both, either in surveillance programmes or in clinical settings. According to current guidelines, a single contrast-enhanced imaging study CT or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showing typical hallmarks of hepatocellular carcinoma in people with cirrhosis is valid to diagnose hepatocellular carcinoma. However, a significant number of hepatocellular carcinomas do not show typical hallmarks on imaging modalities, and hepatocellular carcinoma is, therefore, missed. There is no clear evidence of the benefit of surveillance programmes in terms of overall survival: the conflicting results can be a consequence of inaccurate detection, ineffective treatment, or both. Assessing the diagnostic accuracy of CT may clarify whether the absence of benefit could be related to underdiagnosis. Furthermore, an assessment of the accuracy of CT in people with chronic liver disease, who are not included in surveillance programmes is needed for either ruling out or diagnosing hepatocellular carcinoma.

Objectives: Primary: to assess the diagnostic accuracy of multidetector, multiphasic contrast-enhanced CT for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma of any size and at any stage in adults with chronic liver disease, either in a surveillance programme or in a clinical setting. Secondary: to assess the diagnostic accuracy of CT for the diagnosis of resectable hepatocellular carcinoma in adults with chronic liver disease.

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Hepato-Biliary Trials Register, Cochrane Hepato-Biliary Diagnostic-Test-Accuracy Studies Register, the Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, Embase, LILACS, Science Citation Index Expanded, and Conference Proceedings Citation Index - Science until 4 May 2021. We applied no language or document-type restrictions.

Selection criteria: Studies assessing the diagnostic accuracy of CT for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma in adults with chronic liver disease, with cross-sectional designs, using one of the acceptable reference standards, such as pathology of the explanted liver and histology of resected or biopsied focal liver lesion with at least a six-month follow-up.

Data collection and analysis: At least two review authors independently screened studies, extracted data, and assessed the risk of bias and applicability concerns, using the QUADAS-2 checklist. We presented the results of sensitivity and specificity, using paired forest plots, and tabulated the results. We used a hierarchical meta-analysis model where appropriate. We presented uncertainty of the accuracy estimates using 95% confidence intervals (CIs). We double-checked all data extractions and analyses.

Main results: We included 21 studies, with a total of 3101 participants. We judged all studies to be at high risk of bias in at least one domain because most studies used different reference standards, often inappropriate to exclude the presence of the target condition, and the time-interval between the index test and the reference standard was rarely defined. Regarding applicability in the patient selection domain, we judged 14% (3/21) of studies to be at low concern and 86% (18/21) of studies to be at high concern owing to characteristics of the participants who were on waiting lists for orthotopic liver transplantation. CT for hepatocellular carcinoma of any size and stage: sensitivity 77.5% (95% CI 70.9% to 82.9%) and specificity 91.3% (95% CI 86.5% to 94.5%) (21 studies, 3101 participants; low-certainty evidence). CT for resectable hepatocellular carcinoma: sensitivity 71.4% (95% CI 60.3% to 80.4%) and specificity 92.0% (95% CI 86.3% to 95.5%) (10 studies, 1854 participants; low-certainty evidence). In the three studies at low concern for applicability (861 participants), we found sensitivity 76.9% (95% CI 50.8% to 91.5%) and specificity 89.2% (95% CI 57.0% to 98.1%). The observed heterogeneity in the results remains mostly unexplained. The sensitivity analyses, which included only studies with clearly prespecified positivity criteria and only studies in which the reference standard results were interpreted without knowledge of the results of the index test, showed no variation in the results.

Authors' conclusions: In the clinical pathway for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma in adults with chronic liver disease, CT has roles as a confirmatory test for hepatocellular carcinoma lesions, and for staging assessment. We found that using CT in detecting hepatocellular carcinoma of any size and stage, 22.5% of people with hepatocellular carcinoma would be missed, and 8.7% of people without hepatocellular carcinoma would be unnecessarily treated. For resectable hepatocellular carcinoma, we found that 28.6% of people with resectable hepatocellular carcinoma would improperly not be resected, while 8% of people without hepatocellular carcinoma would undergo inappropriate surgery. The uncertainty resulting from the high risk of bias in the included studies and concerns regarding their applicability limit our ability to confidently draw conclusions based on our results.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / diagnostic imaging
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms* / diagnostic imaging
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed
  • Ultrasonography