Background/aims: The prognosis for patients with hepatocellular carcinoma is poor although tumour encapsulation has been associated with improved survival and disease-free rates. While the source of the tumour capsule is unclear, the major role that activated hepatic stellate cells play in the deposition of liver matrix in normal and diseased states suggests the possible involvement of these cells in tumour encapsulation.
Methods: Twenty-four liver tumours (seven encapsulated HCC, seven non-encapsulated HCC, 10 colorectal metastases) were studied. Activated hepatic stellate cells were identified by immunohistochemistry for alpha-smooth muscle actin (alpha-SMA) and in situ hybridization for pro-collagen alpha1 (I) mRNA. Collagen deposition was localized using Masson's trichrome stain.
Results: Pro-collagen alpha1 (I) mRNA co-localized to alpha-SMA positive hepatic stellate cells within the region of increased collagen deposition in (i) the tumour capsule of encapsulated HCC, and (ii) the tumour junction of non-encapsulated HCC and colorectal metastasis. In addition, there was marked peritumour expression of alpha-SMA and procollagen alpha1 (I) mRNA, which diminished with distance away from the tumour in all tumour groups. The degree of expression was greatest with encapsulated HCC, less with non-encapsulated HCC and least with colorectal metastasis. This contrasted with the absence of alpha-SMA expression in normal liver from the same patients. Within the tumours, colorectal metastases differed from HCC by demonstrating marked alpha-SMA expression and collagen deposition in the septa.
Conclusions: Our findings demonstrate that activated hepatic stellate cells (i) are responsible for increased peritumour collagen production in non-encapsulated HCC and colorectal metastasis, and (ii) may be implicated in tumour capsule formation in HCC and metastasis stroma development. Thus, stellate cells may influence the local hepatic invasion by these tumours.