Liver cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related mortality worldwide, claiming 700,000 lives each year. Most cases are discovered too late for a cure—but now a study offers hope of early detection, and targets for new treatments. Published in Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, the results show a dramatic increase in expression of sugar-burning ‘glycolytic’ enzymes in precancerous cirrhotic livers. This increase is associated with a significantly higher risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC)—the main type of liver cancer—and could lead to a biomarker which identifies those at risk of malignancy.
“We know that 90% of all hepatocellular carcinoma cases start with liver cirrhosis,” explains study senior authors Dr. Salvatore Papa of the University of Leeds and Dr. Concetta Bubici of Brunel University London, UK. “So by pinpointing when cirrhosis progresses to cancer, we could improve early detection and treatment—with surgery, chemo and radiotherapy, but perhaps also with new treatments which reverse the transition.”
Metabolic changes in cancer cells
In cirrhosis, chronic damage caused by hepatitis viruses B or C, alcohol, or obesity leads to scarring and formation of regenerative nodules in the liver. High cell turnover in these nodules, with accumulation of genetic damage, can eventually produce cancerous cells.
“We set out to find features of cirrhotic cells that might predict cancerous change,” says Papa.