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Curr Mol Med. 2003 Sep;3(6):573-88.

Mechanisms of human hepatocarcinogenesis.

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  • 1Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Curriculum in Toxicology, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA.


The major risk factors and etiological agents responsible for development of hepatocellular carcinoma in humans have been identified and characterized. Among these are chronic infection with hepatitis B virus or hepatitis C virus, exposure to aflatoxin B1, and cirrhosis of any etiology (including alcoholic cirrhosis and cirrhosis associated with genetic liver diseases). Both chronic hepatitis and cirrhosis represent major preneoplastic conditions of the liver as the majority of hepatocellular carcinomas arise in these pathological settings. Hepatocarcinogenesis represents a linear and progressive process in which successively more aberrant monoclonal populations of hepatocytes evolve. Regenerative hepatocytes in focal lesions in the inflamed liver (chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis) give rise to hyperplastic hepatocyte nodules, and these progress to dysplastic nodules, which are thought to be the direct precursor of hepatocellular carcinoma. In most cases, the neoplastic transformation of hepatocytes results from accumulation of genetic damage during the repetitive cellular proliferation that occurs in the injured liver in response to paracrine growth factor and cytokine stimulation. Hepatocellular carcinomas exhibit numerous genetic abnormalities (including chromosomal deletions, rearrangements, aneuploidy, gene amplifications, and mutations), as well as epigenetic alterations (including modulation of DNA methylation). These genetic and epigenetic alterations combine to activate positive mediators of cellular proliferation (including cellular proto-oncogenes and their mitogenic signaling pathways) and inactivate negative mediators of cellular proliferation (including tumor suppressor genes), resulting in cells with autonomous growth potential. However, hepatocellular carcinomas exhibit a high degree of genetic heterogeneity, suggesting that multiple molecular pathways may be involved in the genesis of subsets of hepatocellular neoplasms. Continued investigation of the mechanisms of hepatocarcinogenesis will refine our current understanding of the molecular and cellular basis for neoplastic transformation in liver, enabling the development of effective strategies for prevention and/or more effective treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma.

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