Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have developed a new test that may help identify individuals who may be likely to develop hepatocellular carcinoma. A study of the new approach was led by researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The findings were published in the journal Cell.1
Xin Wei Wang, PhD
“Together with existing screening tests, the new test could play an important role in screening people who are at risk for developing hepatocellular carcinoma. It could help doctors find and treat the disease early. The method is relatively simple and inexpensive, and it only requires a small blood sample,” said the study’s leader, Xin Wei Wang, PhD, Co-Leader of the NCI Center for Cancer Research Liver Cancer Program.
Reasoning that certain interactions between viruses and the immune system may raise the risk of developing liver cancer, the team scanned people’s blood for “footprints” left behind by past viral infections. Because these footprints are left in antibodies, they also reflect how the immune system reacted to the infection. The mixture of footprints each person has creates a unique pattern, which the researchers called a viral exposure signature.
The team checked for the footprints of more than 1,000 different viruses in blood samples from around 900 people, including 150 who had hepatocellular carcinoma. They identified a specific viral exposure signature that could accurately distinguish people with liver cancer from people with chronic liver disease and healthy volunteers. This signature contained footprints from 61 different viruses.
The researchers then tested the signature on blood samples from 173 people with chronic liver disease. During that time, 44 of the participants developed hepatocellular carcinoma. Using blood samples taken when the cancer was diagnosed, the signature correctly identified those who developed liver cancer (AUC = 0.98). Of note, the signature also worked when the researchers used blood samples taken at the beginning of the study, up to 10 years before diagnosis (AUC = 0.91).
DISCLOSURE: For study author disclosures, visit sciencedirect.com.
1. Liu J, Tang W, Budhu A, et al: A viral exposure signature defines early onset of hepatocellular carcinoma. Cell. June 10, 2020 (early release online).