Background: An important marker for hepatocellular carcinoma is the presence of des-gamma-carboxy (abnormal) prothrombin. However, the molecular basis for the reduced carboxylation of prothrombin is unknown.
Methods: Two groups of patients were defined according to the absence (Group I, n = 7) or presence (Group II, n = 8) of des-gamma-carboxy prothrombin. The enzymatic activity of gamma-carboxylase and the total microsomal prothrombin concentration were determined in all tumors. The kinetic parameters for the synthetic peptide Phe-Leu-Glu-Glu-Leu (FLEEL) were measured in eight tumors. The gamma-carboxylase mRNA expression was evaluated by Northern blot analysis in 12 of 15 tumors. In addition, the total vitamin K content (K1, K1 epoxide, and menaquinones 4-10) in 10 tumors was investigated by high performance liquid chromatography.
Results: Concentrations of menaquinones 4-10 were normal in the nontumorous part of the liver but significantly decreased (P = 0.02) in all the tumors (Groups I and II). This decrease was more severe in Group II (P = 0.02). The tumors in Group I had normal or increased gamma-carboxylase activity and increased mRNA expression (P < 0.02) as compared with their nontumorous counterparts. The tumors in Group II were heterogeneous. Five tumors displayed low gamma-carboxylase activity, associated with low mRNA expression in two, whereas two others had high gamma-carboxylase activity and mRNA expression. The concentration of FLEEL at half-maximal velocity was normal in all the tumors examined (Groups I and II), and a relation was found between the level of expression of gamma-carboxylase and the maximal velocity for FLEEL carboxylation in the tumors in Group II (r = 0.98; P < 0.01). The microsomal content of normal prothrombin was within normal limits in all tumors (Groups I and II).
Conclusions: Tumor vitamin K content has a critical role in the synthesis of des-gamma-carboxy prothrombin. Furthermore, the gamma-carboxylase defect, which is observed in some secreting tumors, is the result of the defective gene expression of a normal enzyme and not the consequence of the presence of a competitive inhibitor. It is possible that a 75% reduction in gamma-carboxylase gene expression could take a part in the secretion of des-gamma-carboxy prothrombin, but this mechanism is not predominant.