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J Gastrointest Surg. 2011 Nov;15(11):2089-97. doi: 10.1007/s11605-011-1614-7. Epub 2011 Jul 2.

Infiltrating hepatocellular carcinoma: seeing the tree through the forest.

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Department of Surgery, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD 21287, USA.



Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide. It is traditionally difficult to cure, especially when discovered at later stages, making early diagnosis and intervention of paramount importance. HCC typically arises in the background of chronic liver disease and can have various morphologic appearances. One of the most difficult of these to recognize on early surveillance imaging is the infiltrative subtype, which can account for up to 13% of all HCC cases, and may be more closely associated with background hepatitis B infection.


Certain imaging characteristics can provide vital clues, including differing signal intensity on the T1 and T2 sequences of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and the presence/appearance of portal vein thrombus. Owing to the diffuse and infiltrating properties of this tumor, surgical resection and transplantation are rarely if ever viable therapeutic options. Other forms of liver-directed therapy have been attempted with limited success, having minimal efficacy and high morbidity. To date, there is no data available to determine if the various HCC subtypes respond to systemic therapy differently, so this may be the most reasonable approach. Left untreated, observed patients commonly progress to hepatic failure fairly rapidly.


Infiltrative HCC can be extremely subtle, and therefore difficult to detect, especially in the background of cirrhosis. Providers caring for patients with hepatitis, chronic liver disease, and cirrhosis must be extremely vigilant in the evaluation of surveillance imaging in order to potentially discover this HCC subtype as early as possible and initiate a multidisciplinary treatment plan.

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