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Dig Dis. 2002;20(1):81-90.

Molecular targets for prevention of hepatocellular carcinoma.

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Department of Medicine II, University Hospital Freiburg, Germany.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common malignant tumors in some areas of the world with an extremely poor prognosis. The major etiologic risk factors for HCC development include toxins (alcohol, aflatoxin B1), androgens and estrogens, hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection as well as various inherited metabolic disorders, such as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency and hemochromatosis. The molecular pathogenesis of HCC development is very complex and involves alterations in the structure or expression of several tumor suppressor genes, oncogenes and, possibly, mechanisms leading to a genetic instability due to mismatch repair deficiency or chromosomal instability and aneuploidy due to defective chromosomal segregation. Central to the molecular pathogenesis of HCCs are mutations of various genes and a genetic instability which in most cases result from chronic liver disease and the associated enhanced liver cell regeneration and mitotic activity. The prognosis of HCC patients is generally very poor. Most studies report a five year survival rate of less than 5% in symptomatic HCC patients. Furthermore, these tumors have been shown to be quite resistant to radio- or chemotherapy. Investigations of the natural history and clinical course of HCCs revealed long-term survival of patients only with small asymptomatic HCCs that could be treated surgically or by non-surgical interventions. Apart from exploring and refining new HCC treatment strategies, the implementation of existing and the development of novel measures to prevent HCC development are most important. Primary HCC prevention includes among others universal hepatitis B vaccination, antiviral therapy of patients with chronic hepatitis B or C, reduction of food contamination with aflatoxins, elimination of excessive alcohol etc. Also for some genetic diseases there is the potential for HCC prevention by identifying affected family members at risk, such as patients with precirrhotic hemochromatosis. Reduction of iron overload by phlebotomy has been shown to eliminate the progression hemochromatosis to liver cirrhosis and HCC. Preventive measures, therefore, should have a major impact on the incidence of HCCs in patients with acquired and inherited liver diseases. Further, the prevention of a local recurrence or the development of new HCC lesions in patients after successful surgical or non-surgical HCC treatment (secondary prevention) is of paramount importance and is expected to significantly improve disease-free and overall patient survival. Based on rapid scientific advances, molecular diagnosis, gene therapy and molecular prevention are becoming increasingly part of our patient management and will eventually complement and in part replace existing diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive strategies. Overall, this should result in a reduction of the incidence of HCCs, one of the most devastating malignancies worldwide.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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