From the AGA Journals

Novel blood-based panel highly effective for early-stage HCC

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Tremendous benefits to come

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is frequently diagnosed at late stages, leading to a high mortality rate given the limited treatment options. One of the major barriers to early diagnosis of HCC is the suboptimal sensitivity of the current diagnostic modality. Most recently, liquid biopsy has been used to diagnose and prognosticate various tumors, including HCC.

In this study, Dr. Chalasani and colleagues developed a biomarker panel consisting of three methylated DNA markers, methylated B3GALT6 (reference DNA marker) and two proteins (AFP and AFP-L3), to diagnose HCC. This panel demonstrated higher sensitivity (71%) at 90% specificity for early-stage HCC than the GALAD score (41%) or AFP (45%). It is exciting news for clinicians since this novel blood-based test could identify patients who are qualified for curative HCC treatment without the limitations of image-based tests such as body habitus or renal function. Although the cohort is relatively small, the performance is equally good in subgroups of patients based on liver disease etiology, presence of cirrhosis, or sex. We are looking forward to seeing the validation data of this biomarker panel in larger independent cohorts and the studies that compare this panel to abdominal ultrasound, which is the most commonly used tool for HCC surveillance. Hopefully, the sensitivity of the biomarkers-based tests can be further increased, and the costs can be lowered in the near future with more studies in this field. A powerful and cost-effective biomarker-based test that can either replace or enhance current HCC surveillance tools will bring tremendous benefits to our patients.

Howard T. Lee, MD, is with the department of hepatology at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. He has no conflicts.


A blood-based biomarker panel that includes DNA and protein markers featured a 71% sensitivity at 90% specificity for the detection of early-stage hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) compared with the GALAD (gender, age, a-fetoprotein [AFP], Lens culinaris agglutinin-reactive AFP [AFP-L3], and des-gamma-carboxy-prothrombin [DCP]) score or AFP alone, according to research findings. The panel reportedly performed well in certain subgroups based on sex, presence of cirrhosis, and liver disease etiology.

DNA Jezperklauzen/ThinkStock

The study, which included inpatients with HCC and controls without HCC but underlying liver disease, suggests the panel could be utilized in the detection of early stage disease in patients with well-established risk factors for HCC. Ultimately, this may lead to earlier treatment initiation and potentially improved clinical outcomes.

“A blood-based marker panel that detects early-stage HCC with higher sensitivity than current biomarker-based approaches could substantially benefit patients undergoing HCC surveillance,” wrote study authors Naga Chalasani, MD, of Indiana University, Indianapolis, and colleagues. Their report is in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

HCC, which accounts for most primary liver cancers, generally occurs in patients with several established risk factors, including alcoholic liver disease or nonalcoholic fatty liver disease as well as chronic hepatitis B virus or hepatitis C virus infection. Current guidelines, such as those from the European Association for the Study of the Liver and those from the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, recommend surveillance of at-risk patients every 6 months by ultrasound with or without AFP measurement. When caught early, HCC is typically treatable and is associated with a higher rate of survival compared with late-stage disease. According to Dr. Chalasani and colleagues, however, the effectiveness of current recommended surveillance for very early stage or early stage HCC is poor, characterized by a 45% sensitivity for ultrasound and a 63% sensitivity for ultrasound coupled with AFP measurement.

The investigators of the multicenter, case-control study collected blood specimens from 135 patients with HCC as well as 302 age-matched controls with underlying liver disease but no HCC. Very early or early stage disease was seen in approximately 56.3% of patients with HCC, and intermediate, advanced, or terminal stage disease was seen in 43.7% of patients.

To predict cases of HCC, the researchers used a logistic regression algorithm to analyze 10 methylated DNA markers (MDMs) associated with HCC, methylated B3GALT6 (reference DNA marker), and 3 candidate proteins. Finally, the researchers compared the accuracy of the developed blood-based biomarker panel with other blood-based biomarkers – including the GALAD, AFP, AFP-L3, DCP – for the detection of HCC.

The multitarget HCC panel included 3 MDMs – HOXA1, EMX1, and TSPYL5. In addition, the panel included methylation reference marker B3GALT6 and the protein markers AFP and AFP-L3. The biomarker panel featured a higher sensitivity (71%; 95% confidence interval, 60-81) at 90% specificity for the detection of early stage HCC compared with the GALAD score (41%; 95% CI, 30-53) or AFP ≥ 7.32 ng/mL (45%; 95% CI, 33-57). The area under the curve for the novel HCC panel for the detection of any stage HCC was 0.92 vs. 0.87 for the GALAD and 0.81 for the AFP measurement alone. The researchers found that the performance of the test was similar between men and women in terms of sensitivity (79% and 84%, respectively). Moreover, the panel performed similarly well among subgroups based on presence of cirrhosis and liver disease etiology.

A potential limitation of this study was the inclusion of controls who were largely confirmed HCC negative by ultrasound, a technique that lacks sensitivity for detecting early stage HCC, the researchers noted. Given this limitation, the researchers suggest that some of the control participants may have had underlying HCC that was missed by ultrasound. Furthermore, the findings indicate that the cross-sectional nature of the study may also mean some of the control participants had HCCs that were undetectable at initial screening.

Despite the limitations of the study, the researchers reported that the novel, blood-based marker panel’s sensitivity for detecting early stage HCC likely supports its use “among at-risk patients to enhance HCC surveillance and improve early cancer detection.”

The study was funded by the Exact Sciences Corporation. The researchers reported conflicts of interest with several pharmaceutical companies.

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