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J Gastrointestin Liver Dis. 2013 Sep;22(3):305-10.

Aflatoxins as a cause of hepatocellular carcinoma.

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Department of Medicine, Groote Schuur Hospital, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, and Department of Medicine University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg, South Africa; Email:


Aflatoxins, metabolites of the fungi Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, are frequent contaminants of a number of staple foods, particularly maize and ground nuts, in subsistence farming communities in tropical and sub-tropical climates in sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Asia and parts of South America. Contamination of foods occurs during growth and as a result of storage in deficient or inappropriate facilities. These toxins pose serious public health hazards, including the causation of hepatocellular carcinoma by aflatoxin B1. Exposure begins in utero and is life-long. The innocuous parent molecule of the fungus is converted by members of the cytochrome p450 family into mutagenic and carcinogenic intermediates. Aflatoxin-B1 is converted into aflatoxin B1-8,9 exo-epoxide, which is in turn converted into 8,9-dihydroxy-8-(N7) guanyl-9-hydroxy aflatoxin B1 adduct. This adduct is metabolized into aflatoxin B1 formaminopyrimidine adduct. These adducts are mutagenic and carcinogenic. In addition, an arginine to serine mutation at codon 249 of the p53 tumor suppressor gene is produced, abrogating the function of the tumor suppressor gene, and contributing to hepatocarcinogenesis. Aflatoxin B1 acts synergistically with hepatitis B virus in causing hepatocellular carcinoma. A number of interactions between the two carcinogens may be responsible for this action, including integration of hepatitis B virus x gene and its consequences, as well as interference with nucleotide excision repair, activation of p21waf1/cip1, generation of DNA mutations, and altered methylation of genes. But much remains to be learnt about the precise pathogenetic mechanisms responsible for aflatoxin B1-induced hepatocellular carcinoma as well as the interaction between the toxin and hepatitis B virus in causing the tumor.

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