Background: The sugar-chain structures of circulating alpha-fetoprotein in patients with hepatocellular carcinomas differ from those in patients with cirrhosis. We studied the reactivity of alpha-fetoprotein with two lectins, Lens culinaris agglutinin A and erythroagglutinating phytohemagglutinin, to monitor the evolution of hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with cirrhosis.
Methods: Among 361 patients with cirrhosis caused mainly by chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus infection, 33 with base-line serum alpha-fetoprotein concentrations > or = 30 ng per milliliter or more were found to have hepatocellular carcinomas during a mean follow-up of 35 months. The lectin-reactive profiles of the alpha-fetoprotein in the serum of these 33 patients were analyzed and compared with those in the serum of 32 patients with cirrhosis who had increased base-line serum alpha-fetoprotein concentrations and were followed for at least 24 months but in whom hepatocellular carcinoma did not develop.
Results: At the time of tumor detection, 24 (73 percent) of the 33 patients with cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma had higher percentages of L. culinaris agglutinin A-reactive alpha-fetoprotein (alpha-fetoprotein L3), erythroagglutinating phytohemagglutinin-reactive alpha-fetoprotein (alpha-fetoprotein P4+P5), or both than the 32 patients with cirrhosis but no hepatocellular carcinoma. Among the 24 patients, one or both of the markers were first elevated 3 to 18 months before the hepatocellular carcinoma was detected by imaging techniques.
Conclusions: Measurements of the alpha-fetoprotein L3 and alpha-fetoprotein P4+P5 fractions of serum alpha-fetoprotein allow the differentiation of hepatocellular carcinoma from cirrhosis in some cases and serve as predictive markers for the development of hepatocellular carcinoma during the follow-up of patients with cirrhosis.