A series of changes in the genes that control hepatocyte growth, or interference with the protein products of these genes, appears to have an important role in the etiology of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Mutations of the p53 tumor suppressor gene have been identified in 30-50% of HCC patients in some geographic areas. Abnormalities of the RB tumor suppressor gene have been found in 20-25% of HCCs, including 80-86% of HCCs with p53 mutations. Overexpression of transforming growth factor alpha (TGF-alpha), insulin-like growth factor II (IGF-II), and the oncogenes N-ras, c-myc, and c-fos have been found in high percentages of HCC patients. The cumulative effect of these changes may be more important than the order in which they occur. Some of these changes may explain the mechanism(s) by which the hepatitis B virus participates in the development of HCC.