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AJR Am J Roentgenol. 1995 Apr;164(4):885-90.

CT diagnosis of early hepatocellular carcinoma: sensitivity, findings, and CT-pathologic correlation.

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Department of Diagnostic Radiology, National Cancer Center Hospital, Tokyo, Japan.



The purpose of this study was to determine the sensitivity of CT in detecting early hepatocellular carcinoma and to evaluate its CT appearance. An early hepatocellular carcinoma is a nodular lesion with no fibrous capsule composed of well-differentiated tumor histologically. It differs from a small hepatocellular carcinoma, which is an overt tumor that is moderately to poorly differentiated and has a fibrous capsule. Size is not a criterion for distinguishing between early and small hepatocellular carcinomas.


Thirty-one patients with 39 histopathologically proved early hepatocellular carcinomas (mean diameter, 1.7 cm) found by sonography, MR imaging, and/or intraoperative sonography were included in a retrospective study. We reviewed unenhanced CT scans of the entire liver in 30 patients (37 lesions) and early and late (35 sec and 5 min after the beginning of injection of contrast material) contrast-enhanced CT scans of the entire liver in all 31 patients (table incremental CT in 21; helical CT in 10; 39 lesions). Eighteen histologically proved small hepatocellular carcinomas (< or = 3 cm; mean diameter, 2.3 cm), present in the same patients, served for comparison. Histopathologically, nine patients had chronic hepatitis, and 22 had cirrhosis.


The overall sensitivity of CT in detecting early hepatocellular carcinoma was 56%. These tumors were usually isodense with respect to surrounding liver on unenhanced, early enhanced, and late enhanced CT scans (iso-iso-iso). This pattern was seen in 17 (46%) of 37 lesions; thus, these 17 histologically proved early hepatocellular carcinomas were not detected with CT. An iso-iso-low density pattern was recognized in eight (22%), a low-low-low pattern in seven (19%), and several different patterns in five (13%) of the 37 lesions. Only two (5%) of 39 early hepatocellular carcinomas had a high-density appearance on early enhanced CT scans. In comparison, the most common pattern of small overt hepatocellular carcinomas on CT scans was low-high-low, seen in 17 lesions (94%) detected with CT. When the density of lesions on unenhanced CT scans was compared with the histopathologic appearance of the masses, low-density lesions showed mild to moderate fatty change and isodense lesions showed no or minimal fatty change (p = .006).


The sensitivity of CT in detecting early hepatocellular carcinoma is poor (56%). However, the diagnosis of early hepatocellular carcinoma should be considered if CT scans show a small lesion with an iso-low or low-low density enhancement pattern on early and late contrast-enhanced CT scans, respectively, in patients with chronic liver disease.

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