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Br J Cancer. 1997;76(5):628-33.

Semiquantification of circulating hepatocellular carcinoma cells by reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction.

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Department of Clinical Oncology, Sir YK Pao Cancer Centre, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Prince of Wales Hospital, Shatin.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common and rapidly fatal malignancies worldwide. Treatment options are severely limited by the frequent presence of metastases. If hepatocyte-specific mRNAs are detected in the circulation, it is possible to infer the presence of circulating, presumably malignant, liver cells. If these can be quantified, it is possible to predict the likelihood of haematogenous metastasis. In this investigation, we have attempted to gain an index of the mass of circulating HCC cells (with reference to the number of hepatoblastoma cells) by measuring the amounts of PCR products for albumin (alb) mRNA and alpha-fetoprotein (afp) mRNA by reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and Southern blot analysis. For calibration, total RNA from 1-10(6) HepG2 cells was mixed with total RNA from 10(6) normal peripheral mononuclear cells. A linear relationship was demonstrated between the amount of alb- or afp PCR product and the level of HepG2 total RNA spiked. The assay is sensitive down to a detection level of one HepG2 cell. Alb mRNA was detected in 50% of 18 normal subjects and afp mRNA in only two normal subjects. The alb mRNA cut-off level for the normal was exceeded by seven normal subjects and 34 out of 64 HCC patients, and that for afp mRNA was exceeded by six HCC patients but none of the normal subjects. The level of alb mRNA detected was not linearly proportional to the amount of afp mRNA detected in peripheral blood of the same patients, suggesting heterogeneous expression of alb and afp genes in different circulating tumour cells. In addition, no significant linear association between the levels of afp mRNA and serum AFP was observed. Semiquantification of both mRNA markers for HCC cell detection may prove useful in prediction of metastases.

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