Apparent diffusion coefficient and tissue stiffness are associated with different tumor microenvironment features of hepatocellular carcinoma

Eur Radiol. 2024 May 20. doi: 10.1007/s00330-024-10743-2. Online ahead of print.


Objectives: To investigate associations between tissue diffusion, stiffness, and different tumor microenvironment features in resected hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

Methods: Seventy-two patients were prospectively included for preoperative magnetic resonance (MR) diffusion-weighted imaging and MR elastography examination. The mean apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC) and stiffness value were measured on the central three slices of the tumor and peri-tumor area. Cell density, tumor-stroma ratio (TSR), lymphocyte-rich HCC (LR-HCC), and CD8 + T cell infiltration were estimated in resected tumors. The interobserver agreement of MRI measurements and subjective pathological evaluation was assessed. Variables influencing ADC and stiffness were screened with univariate analyses, and then identified with multivariable linear regression. The potential relationship between explored imaging biomarkers and histopathological features was assessed with linear regression after adjustment for other influencing factors.

Results: Seventy-two patients (male/female: 59/13, mean age: 56 ± 10.2 years) were included for analysis. Inter-reader agreement was good or excellent regarding MRI measurements and histopathological evaluation. No correlation between tumor ADC and tumor stiffness was found. Multivariable linear regression confirmed that cell density was the only factor associated with tumor ADC (Estimate = -0.03, p = 0.006), and tumor-stroma ratio was the only factor associated with tumor stiffness (Estimate = -0.18, p = 0.03). After adjustment for fibrosis stage (Estimate = 0.43, p < 0.001) and age (Estimate = 0.04, p < 0.001) in the multivariate linear regression, intra-tumoral CD8 + T cell infiltration remained a significant factor associated with peri-tumor stiffness (Estimate = 0.63, p = 0.02).

Conclusions: Tumor ADC surpasses tumor stiffness as a biomarker of cellularity. Tumor stiffness is associated with tumor-stroma ratio and peri-tumor stiffness might be an imaging biomarker of intra-tumoral immune microenvironment.

Clinical relevance statement: Tissue stiffness could potentially serve as an imaging biomarker of the intra-tumoral immune microenvironment of hepatocellular carcinoma and aid in patient selection for immunotherapy.

Key points: Apparent diffusion coefficient reflects cellularity of hepatocellular carcinoma. Tumor stiffness reflects tumor-stroma ratio of hepatocellular carcinoma and is associated with tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. Tumor and peri-tumor stiffness might serve as imaging biomarkers of intra-tumoral immune microenvironment.

Keywords: Carcinoma; Cell density; Diffusion magnetic resonance imaging; Magnetic resonance elastography; Tumor microenvironment; hepatocellular.