Magnetic resonance imaging for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma in adults with chronic liver disease

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2022 May 6;5(5):CD014798. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD014798.pub2.


Background: Hepatocellular carcinoma occurs mostly in people with chronic liver disease and ranks sixth in terms of global incidence of cancer, and third in terms of cancer deaths. In clinical practice, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) 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-fetoprotein, or both, either in surveillance programmes or in clinical settings. According to current guidelines, a single contrast-enhanced imaging study (computed tomography (CT) or MRI) showing typical hallmarks of hepatocellular carcinoma in people with cirrhosis is considered valid to diagnose hepatocellular carcinoma. The detection of hepatocellular carcinoma amenable to surgical resection could improve the prognosis. However, a significant number of hepatocellular carcinomas do not show typical hallmarks on imaging modalities, and hepatocellular carcinoma may, therefore, be 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 MRI may clarify whether the absence of benefit could be related to underdiagnosis. Furthermore, an assessment of the accuracy of MRI 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 MRI for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma of any size and at any stage in adults with chronic liver disease. Secondary: to assess the diagnostic accuracy of MRI for the diagnosis of resectable hepatocellular carcinoma in adults with chronic liver disease, and to identify potential sources of heterogeneity in the results.

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Hepato-Biliary Group Controlled Trials Register, the Cochrane Hepato-Biliary Group Diagnostic Test of Accuracy Studies Register, the Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, Embase, and three other databases to 9 November 2021. We manually searched articles retrieved, contacted experts, handsearched abstract books from meetings held during the last 10 years, and searched for literature in OpenGrey (9 November 2021). Further information was requested by e-mails, but no additional information was provided. No data was obtained through correspondence with investigators. We applied no language or document-type restrictions.

Selection criteria: Studies assessing the diagnostic accuracy of MRI 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 we 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 34 studies, with 4841 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, we judged 15% (5/34) of studies to be at low concern and 85% (29/34) of studies to be at high concern mostly owing to characteristics of the participants, most of whom were on waiting lists for orthotopic liver transplantation, and due to pathology of the explanted liver being the only reference standard. MRI for hepatocellular carcinoma of any size and stage: sensitivity 84.4% (95% CI 80.1% to 87.9%) and specificity 93.8% (95% CI 90.1% to 96.1%) (34 studies, 4841 participants; low-certainty evidence). MRI for resectable hepatocellular carcinoma: sensitivity 84.3% (95% CI 77.6% to 89.3%) and specificity 92.9% (95% CI 88.3% to 95.9%) (16 studies, 2150 participants; low-certainty evidence). 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: We found that using MRI as a second-line imaging modality to diagnose hepatocellular carcinoma of any size and stage, 16% of people with hepatocellular carcinoma would be missed, and 6% of people without hepatocellular carcinoma would be unnecessarily treated. For resectable hepatocellular carcinoma, we found that 16% of people with resectable hepatocellular carcinoma would improperly not be resected, while 7% 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* / complications
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / diagnostic imaging
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms* / complications
  • Liver Neoplasms* / diagnostic imaging
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Ultrasonography