Contrast-enhanced ultrasound for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma in adults with chronic liver disease

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2022 Sep 2;9(9):CD013483. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD013483.pub2.


Background: Hepatocellular carcinoma occurs mostly in people with chronic liver disease. Worldwide, it ranks sixth in terms of incidence of cancer, and fourth in terms of cancer-related deaths. Contrast-enhanced ultrasound (CEUS) is used as an add-on test to confirm the presence of focal liver lesions suspected as hepatocellular carcinoma after prior diagnostic tests such as abdominal ultrasound or measurement of alpha-foetoprotein, or both. According to guidelines, a single contrast-enhanced imaging investigation, with either computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may show the typical hepatocellular carcinoma hallmarks in people with cirrhosis, which will be sufficient to diagnose hepatocellular carcinoma. However, a significant number of hepatocellular carcinomas show atypical imaging features, and therefore, are missed at imaging. Dynamic CEUS images are obtained similarly to CT and MRI images. CEUS differentiates between arterial and portal venous phases, in which sonographic hepatocellular carcinoma hallmarks, such as arterial hyperenhancement and subsequent washout appearance, are investigated. The advantages of CEUS over CT and MRI include real-time imaging, use of contrast agents that do not contain iodine and are not nephrotoxic, and quick image acquisition. Despite the advantages, the use of CEUS in the diagnostic algorithm for HCC remains controversial, with disagreement on relevant guidelines. There is no clear evidence of the benefit of surveillance programmes in terms of overall survival as the conflicting results can be a consequence of an inaccurate detection, ineffective treatment, or both. Therefore, assessing the diagnostic accuracy of CEUS may clarify whether the absence of benefit could be related to underdiagnosis. Furthermore, an assessment of the accuracy of CEUS for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma is needed for either diagnosing hepatocellular carcinoma or ruling it out in people with chronic liver disease who are not included in surveillance programmes.

Objectives: 1. To assess the diagnostic accuracy of contrast-enhanced ultrasound (CEUS) for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma of any size and at any stage in adults with chronic liver disease, in a surveillance programme or in a clinical setting. 2. To assess the diagnostic accuracy of CEUS for the diagnosis of resectable hepatocellular carcinoma in people with chronic liver disease and identify potential sources of heterogeneity in the results.

Search methods: We used standard, extensive Cochrane search methods. The last date of search was 5 November 2021.

Selection criteria: We included studies assessing the diagnostic accuracy of CEUS 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: We used standard Cochrane methods to screen studies, extract data, and assess the risk of bias and applicability concerns, using the QUADAS-2 checklist. We used the bivariate model and provided estimates of summary sensitivity and specificity. We assessed the certainty of the evidence using GRADE. We presented uncertainty-of-the-accuracy estimates using 95% confidence intervals (CIs).

Main results: We included 23 studies with 6546 participants. Studies were published between 2001 and 2021. We judged all 23 studies at high-risk of bias in at least one domain, and 13/23 studies at high concern for applicability. Most studies used different reference standards to exclude the presence of the target condition. The time interval between the index test and the reference standard was rarely defined. We also had major concerns on their applicability due to the characteristics of the participants. - CEUS for hepatocellular carcinoma of any size and stage: sensitivity 77.8% (95% CI 69.4% to 84.4%) and specificity 93.8% (95% CI 89.1% to 96.6%) (23 studies, 6546 participants; very low-certainty evidence). - CEUS for resectable hepatocellular carcinoma: sensitivity 77.5% (95% CI 62.9% to 87.6%) and specificity 92.7% (95% CI 86.8% to 96.1%) (13 studies, 1257 participants; low-certainty evidence). The observed heterogeneity in the results remains unexplained. The sensitivity analyses, including only studies with clearly prespecified positivity criteria and only studies in which the reference standard results were interpreted with no knowledge of the results about the index test, showed no differences in the results.

Authors' conclusions: We found that by using CEUS, as an add-on test following abdominal ultrasound, to diagnose hepatocellular carcinoma of any size and stage, 22% of people with hepatocellular carcinoma would be missed, and 6% of people without hepatocellular carcinoma would unnecessarily undergo further testing or inappropriate treatment. As to resectable hepatocellular carcinoma, we found that 23% of people with resectable hepatocellular carcinoma would incorrectly be unresected, while 8% of people without hepatocellular carcinoma would undergo further inappropriate testing or treatment. The uncertainty resulting from the high risk of bias of the included studies, heterogeneity, and imprecision of the results and concerns on their applicability limit our ability to draw confident conclusions.

Publication types

  • 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