Circulating Tumor Cell-Based Messenger RNA Scoring System for Prognostication of Hepatocellular Carcinoma: Translating Tissue-Based Messenger RNA Profiling Into a Noninvasive Setting

Liver Transpl. 2022 Feb;28(2):200-214. doi: 10.1002/lt.26337. Epub 2021 Nov 16.


Numerous studies in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) have proposed tissue-based gene signatures for individualized prognostic assessments. Here, we develop a novel circulating tumor cell (CTC)-based transcriptomic profiling assay to translate tissue-based messenger RNA (mRNA) signatures into a liquid biopsy setting for noninvasive HCC prognostication. The HCC-CTC mRNA scoring system combines the NanoVelcro CTC Assay for enriching HCC CTCs and the NanoString nCounter platform for quantifying the HCC-CTC Risk Score (RS) panel in enriched HCC CTCs. The prognostic role of the HCC-CTC RS was assessed in The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) HCC cohort (n = 362) and validated in an independent clinical CTC cohort (n = 40). The HCC-CTC RS panel was developed through our integrated data analysis framework of 8 HCC tissue-based gene signatures and identified the top 10 prognostic genes (discoidin domain receptor tyrosine kinase 1 [DDR1], enoyl-CoA hydratase and 3-hydroxyacyl CoA dehydrogenase [EHHADH], androgen receptor [AR], lumican [LUM], hydroxysteroid 17-beta dehydrogenase 6[HSD17B6], prostate transmembrane protein, androgen induced 1 [PMEPA1], tsukushi, small leucine rich proteoglycan [TSKU], N-terminal EF-hand calcium binding protein 2 [NECAB2], ladinin 1 [LAD1], solute carrier family 27 member 5 [SLC27A5]) highly expressed in HCC with low expressions in white blood cells. The panel accurately discriminated overall survival in TCGA HCC cohort (hazard ratio [HR], 2.0; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.4-2.9). The combined use of the scoring system and HCC-CTC RS panel successfully distinguished artificial blood samples spiked with an aggressive HCC cell type, SNU-387, from those spiked with PLC/PRF/5 cells (P = 0.02). In the CTC validation cohort (n = 40), HCC-CTC RS remained an independent predictor of survival (HR, 5.7; 95% CI, 1.5-21.3; P = 0.009) after controlling for Model for End-Stage Liver Disease score, Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer stage, and CTC enumeration count. Our study demonstrates a novel interdisciplinary approach to translate tissue-based gene signatures into a liquid biopsy setting. This noninvasive approach will allow real-time disease profiling and dynamic prognostication of HCC.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / genetics
  • End Stage Liver Disease*
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms* / diagnosis
  • Liver Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Liver Transplantation*
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating* / metabolism
  • Prognosis
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • Severity of Illness Index


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • RNA, Messenger