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Scand J Gastroenterol. 1999 Apr;34(4):426-31.

Carbohydrate 19-9 antigen as a marker of non-malignant hepatocytic ductular transformation in patients with acute liver failure. A comparison with alpha-fetoprotein and carcinoembryonic antigen.

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Dept. of Surgery, Helsinki University Central Hospital, Finland.



We have observed increased serum tumor markers, especially carbohydrate antigen 19-9 (CA 19-9) levels, in patients with acute liver failure (ALF) being evaluated for liver transplantation, raising the question of potential malignancy. In chronic liver disease increased serum alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) may be a sign of liver regeneration, but little is known of these markers in ALF. The aim of this study was to evaluate the causes of overexpression of tumor markers in patients with non-malignant ALF.


The serum AFP, carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), and CA 19-9 levels were compared with the liver function tests in 33 patients with acute liver failure and in 78 patients with chronic non-malignant liver disease being evaluated for liver transplantation. Immunohistochemical stainings of the tumor markers were performed on explanted liver specimens.


The AFP (1-218 U/ml) and CA 19-9 (10-6520 U/ml) levels were significantly higher in the patients with ALF than in the patients with chronic liver disease (P < 0.01). The AFP and CA 19-9 values also correlated with the total serum bilirubin level. In the patients with ALF the immunohistochemical staining for CA 19-9 was highly positive in periportal transformed ductular hepatocytes and correlated positively with the serum CA 19-9 values (P < 0.001). The stainings for AFP or CEA showed no or only slight positivity in the patients with increased serum values of the tumor markers.


In patients with ALF increased serum levels of CA 19-9 reflect the amount of transformed ductular hepatocytes without any evidence of malignancy. Increased CA 19-9 values should not be the cause of delay when an ALF patient needs an urgent liver transplantation.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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