Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC, also called hepatoma) is a primary malignancy (cancer) of the liver. Most cases of HCC are secondary to either a viral hepatitide infection (hepatitis B or C) or cirrhosis (alcoholism being the most common cause of hepatic cirrhosis). In countries where hepatitis is not endemic, most malignant cancers in the liver are not primary HCC but metastasis (spread) of cancer from elsewhere in the body, e.g. the colon. Treatment options of HCC and prognosis are dependent on many factors but especially on tumor size and staging. Tumor grade is also important. High-grade tumors will have a poor prognosis, while low-grade tumors may go unnoticed for many years, as is the case in many other organs, such as the breast, where a ductal carcinoma in situ (or a lobular carcinoma in situ) may be present without any clinical signs and without correlate on routine imaging tests, although in some occasions it may be detected on more specialized imaging studies like MR mammography (it should be stated, however, that the sensitivity of this technique remains, even with current state-of-the-art technology, below 50%).
The usual outcome is poor, because only 10 - 20% of hepatocellular carcinomas can be removed completely using surgery. If the cancer cannot be completely removed, the disease is usually deadly within 3 to 6 months. This is partially due to late presentation with large tumours, but also the lack of medical expertise and facilities. This is a rare tumor in the United States. A new receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitor, sorafenib has been shown in a Spanish phase III clinical trial to double the lifespan of late stage HCC patients.
In some parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, HCC is the most common cancer, generally affecting men more than women, and with an age of onset between late teens and 30s. This variability is in part due to the different patterns of hepatitis B transmission in different populations - infection at or around birth predispose to earlier cancers than if people are infected later. The time between hepatitis B infection and development into HCC can be years, even decades, but from diagnosis of HCC to death the average survival period is only 5.9 months according to one Chinese study during the 1970-80s, or 3 months (median survival time) in Sub-Saharan Africa according to Manson's textbook of tropical diseases. HCC is one of the deadliest cancers in China. Food infected with Aspergillus flavus (especially peanuts and corns stored during prolonged wet seasons) which produces aflatoxin poses another risk factor for HCC.
Most malignant tumors of the liver discovered in Western patients are metastases (spread) from tumors elsewhere. In the West, HCC is generally seen as rare cancer, normally of those with pre-existing liver disease. It is often detected by ultrasound screening, and so can be discovered by health-care facilities much earlier than in developing regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa.
Acute and chronic hepatic porphyrias (acute intermittent porphyria, porphyria cutanea tarda, hereditary coproporphyria, variegate porphyria) and tyrosinemia type I are risk factors for hepatocellular carcinoma. The diagnosis of an acute hepatic porphyria (AIP, HCP, VP) should be sought in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma without typical risk factors of hepatitis B or C, alcoholic liver cirrhosis or hemochromatosis. Both active and latent genetic carriers of acute hepatic porphyrias are at risk for this cancer, although latent genetic carriers have developed the cancer at a later age than those with classic symptoms. Patients with acute hepatic porphyrias should be monitored for hepatocellular carcinoma.
Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) most commonly appears in a patient with chronic viral hepatitis (hepatitis B or hepatitis C, 20%) or with cirrhosis (about 80%). These patients commonly undergo surveillance with ultrasound due to the cost-effectiveness.
In patients with a higher suspicion of HCC (such as rising alpha-fetoprotein and des-gamma carboxyprothrombin levels), the best method of diagnosis involves a CT scan of the abdomen using intravenous contrast agent and three-phase scanning (before contrast administration, immediately after contrast administration, and again after a delay) to increase the ability of the radiologist to detect small or subtle tumors. It is important to optimize the parameters of the CT examination, because the underlying liver disease that most HCC patients have can make the findings more difficult to appreciate.
On CT, HCC can have three distinct patterns of growth:
The key characteristics on CT are hypervascularity in the arterial phase scans, washout or de-enhancement in the portal and delayed phase studies, a pseudocapsule and a mosaic pattern. Both calcifications and intralesional fat may be appreciated.
CT scans use contrast agents, which are typically iodine or barium based. Some patients are allergic to one or both of these contrast agents, most often iodine. Usually the allergic reaction is manageable and not life threatening.
An alternative to a CT imaging study would be the MRI. MRI's are more expensive and not as available because fewer facilities have MRI machines. More important MRI are just beginning to be used in tumor detection and fewer radiologists are skilled at finding tumors with MRI studies when it is used as a screening device. Mostly the radiologists are using MRIs to do a secondary study to look at an area where a tumor has already been detected. MRI's also use contrast agents. One of the best for showing details of liver tumors is very new: iron oxide nano-particles appears to give better results. The latter are absorbed by normal liver tissue, but not tumors or scar tissue.
Macroscopically, liver cancer appears as a nodular or infiltrative tumor. The nodular type may be solitary (large mass) or multiple (when developed as a complication of cirrhosis). Tumor nodules are round to oval, grey or green (if the tumor produces bile), well circumscribed but not encapsulated. The diffuse type is poorly circumscribed and infiltrates the portal veins, or the hepatic veins (rarely).
Microscopically, there are four architectural and cytological types (patterns) of hepatocellular carcinoma: fibrolamellar, pseudoglandular (adenoid), pleomorphic (giant cell) and clear cell. In well differentiated forms, tumor cells resemble hepatocytes, form trabeculae, cords and nests, and may contain bile pigment in cytoplasm. In poorly differentiated forms, malignant epithelial cells are discohesive, pleomorphic, anaplastic, giant. The tumor has a scant stroma and central necrosis because of the poor vascularization.
Important features that guide treatment include: -
MRI is the best imaging method to detect the presence of a tumor capsule.
There is a new drug Sorafenib which was originally used for Renal Cell Cancer that has shown promising results when used with Hepatocellular Cancer
Abbreviations: HCC, hepatocellular carcinoma; TACE, transarterial embolization/chemoembolization; PFS, progression-free survival; PS, performance status; HBV, hepatitis B virus; PEI, percutaneous ethanol injection; RR, response rate; MS, median survival.
The Jade Ribbon Campaign is used for awareness of liver cancer and hepatitis B in the Pacific Islands, where such illnesses are more widespread than elsewhere.
Current research includes the search for the genes that are disregulated in HCC, protein markers, and other predictive biomarkers. As similar research is yielding results in various other malignant diseases, it is hoped that identifying the aberrant genes and the resultant proteins could lead to the identification of pharmacological interventions for HCC.