Hepatoblastomas with carcinoma features represent a biological spectrum of aggressive neoplasms in children and young adults

J Hepatol. 2022 Oct;77(4):1026-1037. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2022.04.035. Epub 2022 May 14.


Background & aims: Hepatoblastoma (HB) and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) are the predominant liver cancers in children, though their respective treatment options and associated outcomes differ dramatically. Risk stratification using a combination of clinical, histological, and molecular parameters can improve treatment selection, but it is particularly challenging for tumors with mixed histological features, including those in the recently created hepatocellular neoplasm not otherwise specified (HCN NOS) provisional category. We aimed to perform the first molecular characterization of clinically annotated cases of HCN NOS.

Methods: We tested whether these histological features are associated with genetic alterations, cancer gene dysregulation, and outcomes. Namely, we compared the molecular features of HCN NOS, including copy number alterations, mutations, and gene expression profiles, with those in other pediatric hepatocellular neoplasms, including HBs and HCCs, as well as HBs demonstrating focal atypia or pleomorphism (HB FPAs), and HBs diagnosed in older children (>8).

Results: Molecular profiles of HCN NOS and HB FPAs revealed common underlying biological features that were previously observed in HCCs. Consequently, we designated these tumor types collectively as HBs with HCC features (HBCs). These tumors were associated with high mutation rates (∼3 somatic mutations/Mb) and were enriched with mutations and alterations in key cancer genes and pathways. In addition, recurrent large-scale chromosomal gains, including gains of chromosomal arms 2q (80%), 6p (70%), and 20p (70%), were observed. Overall, HBCs were associated with poor clinical outcomes.

Conclusions: Our study indicates that histological features seen in HBCs are associated with combined molecular features of HB and HCC, that HBCs are associated with poor outcomes irrespective of patient age, and that transplanted patients are more likely to have good outcomes than those treated with chemotherapy and surgery alone. These findings highlight the importance of molecular testing and early therapeutic intervention for aggressive childhood hepatocellular neoplasms.

Lay summary: We molecularly characterized a class of histologically aggressive childhood liver cancers and showed that these tumors are clinically aggressive and that their observed histological features are associated with underlying recurrent molecular features. We proposed a diagnostic algorithm to identify these cancers using a combination of histological and molecular features, and our analysis suggested that these cancers may benefit from specialized treatment strategies that may differ from treatment guidelines for other childhood liver cancers.

Keywords: Cancer heterogeneity; HB FPAHBs that demonstrate focal macrotrabecular pattern, pleomorphism or anaplasia; HCN NOS; cancer etiology; diagnostic biomarker; hepatoblastoma; liver cancer; pediatric cancer.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / pathology
  • Child
  • Chromosome Aberrations
  • Hepatoblastoma* / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Mutation
  • Young Adult