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Minimally invasive image-guided therapy for inoperable hepatocellular carcinoma

Curator & Reporter: Dror Nir, PhD

Large organs like the liver are good candidates for focused treatment. The following paper:

Minimally invasive image-guided therapy for inoperable hepatocellular carcinoma: What is the evidence today?

By Beatrijs A. Seinstra1, et. al. published mid-2010, gives a review of the state-of-the-art of the then available methods for local lesions’ ablation. As far as ablation techniques availability, I have found this review very much relevant to today’s technological reality. It is worthwhile noting that in the last couple of years, new imaging-based navigation and guidance applications were introduced into the market holding a promise to improve the accuracy of administrating such treatment. These are subject to clinical validation in large clinical studies.  From the above mentioned publication I have chosen to highlight the parts discussing the importance of imaging-based guidance to the effective application of localized ablation-type therapies.

The clinical need:

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a primary malignant tumor of the liver that accounts for an important health problem worldwide. Primary liver cancer is the sixth most common cancer worldwide with an incidence of 626,000 patients a year, and the third most common cause of cancer-related death [1]. Only 10–15% of HCC patients are suitable candidates for hepatic resection and liver transplantation due to the advanced stage of the disease at time of diagnosis and shortage of donors.

Immerging solution:

In order to provide therapeutic options for patients with inoperable HCC, several minimally invasive image-guided therapies for locoregional treatment have been developed. HCC has a tendency to remain confined to the liver until the disease has advanced, making these treatments particularly attractive.

Minimally invasive image-guided therapies can be divided into the group of the tumor ablative techniques or the group of image-guided catheter-based techniques. Tumor ablative techniques are either based on thermal tumor destruction, as in radiofrequency ablation (RFA), cryoablation, microwave ablation, laser ablation and high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU), or chemical tumor destruction, as in percutaneous ethanol injection (PEI). These techniques are mostly used for early stage disease. Image-guided catheter-based techniques rely on intra-arterial delivery of embolic, chemoembolic, or radioembolic agents [22]. These techniques enable treatment of large lesions or whole liver treatment, and are as such used for intermediate stage HCC (Figure 1).

Minimally invasive image-guided ablation techniques and intra-arterial interventions may prolong survival, spare more functioning liver tissue in comparison to surgical resection (which can be very important in cirrhotic patients), allow retreatment if necessary, and may be an effective bridge to transplantation [2327].

During the last 2 decades, minimally invasive image-guided therapies have revolutionized the management of inoperable HCC.

The value of image guidance

Accurate imaging is of great importance during minimally invasive loco-regional therapies to efficiently guide and monitor the treatment. It enables proper placement of instruments, like the probe in case of ablation or the catheter in case of intra-arterial therapy, and accurate monitoring of the progression of the necrotic zone during ablation.

can all be employed. In current clinical practice, placement of the catheter in intra-arterial procedures is usually performed under fluoroscopic guidance, while ablation may be guided by ultrasound, CT or MRI.

  • Ultrasound guidance allows probe insertion from every angle, offers real time visualization and correction for motion artifacts when targeting the tumor, and is low cost. However, the gas created during ablation (or ice in the case of cryoablation) hampers penetration of the ultrasound beams in tissue, causing acoustic shadowing and obscuring image details like the delineation between tumor borders and ablation zone.
  • CT is also frequently used to guide minimally invasive ablation therapy, and is a reliable modality to confirm treatment results. In comparison to US, it provides increased lesion discrimination, a more reliable depiction of ablated/non-ablated interfaces, and a better correlation to pathologic size [28]. However, due to its hypervascularity, small HCCs can only be clearly visualized in the arterial phase for a short period of time. Another disadvantage of CT is the exposure of the patient and physician to ionizing radiation.
  • Combining US imaging for probe placement and CT for ablation monitoring reduces this exposure. At the moment, hybrid systems are being developed, enabling combination of imaging techniques, like ultrasound and CT imaging, thereby improving the registration accuracy during treatment [29]. The interest in MRI-guided ablation is growing, as it produces a high-quality image allowing high-sensitivity tumor detection and accurate identification of the target region with multiplanar imaging.
  • MRI also enables real-time monitoring of the temperature evolution during treatment [3035]. However, MRI is an expensive technique, and MRI-guided ablation is still limited in clinical practice. Currently, the most widely used ablation technique for percutaneous treatment of focal hepatic malignancies is radiofrequency ablation (RFA), which has been shown to be safe and effective for the treatment of early stage HCC [4850]. During RFA, a small electrode is placed within the tumor, and a high-frequency alternating electric current (approximately 400 MHz) is generated, causing ionic agitation within the tissue. ….. Most frequently ultrasound is used for image guidance (Figs. 23), but there are reports of groups who use CT, MRI, or fluoroscopic imaging.
Ultrasound guided RFA. a: HCC lesion in a non-surgical patient pre-treatment (pointed out by arrow). b: Just after start treatment, electrode placed centrally in the tumor. c: Gas formation during ablation causes acoustic shadowing

Ultrasound guided RFA. a: HCC lesion in a non-surgical patient pre-treatment (pointed out by arrow). b: Just after start treatment, electrode placed centrally in the tumor. c: Gas formation during ablation causes acoustic shadowing

Contrast-enhanced CT pre- and post-RFA. Same patient as in Fig. 2. a: Hypervascular lesion (biopsy proven HCC) in right liver lobe (pointed out by arrow) before treatment. b: Ablated lesion directly post ablation, with reactive hyperemia around the RFA lesion

Contrast-enhanced CT pre- and post-RFA. Same patient as in Fig. 2. a: Hypervascular lesion (biopsy proven HCC) in right liver lobe (pointed out by arrow) before treatment. b: Ablated lesion directly post ablation, with reactive hyperemia around the RFA lesion

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Other research papers related to the management of Prostate cancer were published on this Scientific Web site:

HBV and HCV-associated Liver Cancer: Important Insights from the Genome

Issues in Personalized Medicine in Cancer: Intratumor Heterogeneity and Branched Evolution Revealed by Multiregion Sequencing

Harnessing Personalized Medicine for Cancer Management, Prospects of Prevention and Cure: Opinions of Cancer Scientific Leaders @ http://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com

Whole-body imaging as cancer screening tool; answering an unmet clinical need?

Personalized Medicine: Cancer Cell Biology and Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS)

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Reporter and Curator: Ritu Saxena, PhD

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is increasingly used in clinical diagnostics, for a rapidly growing number of indications. The MRI technique is non-invasive and can provide information on the anatomy, function and metabolism of tissues in vivo (Strijkers GJ, et al, Anticancer Agents Med Chem, May 2007;7(3):291-305). Basic contrast in the MRI image scans is as a result of contrast generated by differences in the relaxation times between different regions. Since the intrinsic contrast generated between regions is limited to allow clear and specific diagnosis, MRI contrast agents administered intravenously are increasingly being used to alter image contrast.

Gadoxetic acid, a gadolinium-based compound, is a recently developed hepatobiliary-specific contrast material for MRI that has high sensitivity in the detection of malignant liver tumors. Its salt, gadoxetate disodium, is marketed as Primovist in Europe and Eovist in the United States by Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals. Gadoxetic acid is taken up by hepatocytes and then excreted into the bile ducts (Schuhmann-Giampieri G, et al, Radiology, Apr 1992;183(1):59-64). Therefore, hepatic focal lesions without normal hepatobiliary function are depicted as hypointense areas compared with the well-enhanced hyperintense background liver in the hepatobiliary phase of gadoxetic acid–enhanced MR imaging. In addition, gadoxetic acid can be used in the same way as gadopentetate dimeglumine to evaluate the hemodynamics of hepatic lesions in the dynamic phase after an intravenous bolus injection (Kitao A, et al, Radiology, Sep 2010;256(3):817-26).

Recently, researchers from Kanazawa University Graduate School of Medical Science, (Kanazawa, Japan) analyzed the correlation among biologic features, tumor marker production, and signal intensity at gadoxetic acid-enhanced MR imaging in hepatocellular carcinomas (HCCs). The findings were published in Radiology journal. The research was supported in part by a Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (21591549) from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology; and by Health and Labor Sciences Research Grants for “Development of novel molecular markers and imaging modalities for earlier diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma.”

Research significance: HCC is the most frequent primary malignant tumor of liver and is the third most common cause of cancer death worldwide. It is the most Hepatocellular.

The accurate detection and characterization of HCC focal lesions is crucial for improving prognosis of patients with HCC.

Research problem: Gadoxetic acid–enhanced MR imaging is highly accurate for diagnosing HCC lesions. As discussed earlier, in this imaging process, hepatic focal lesions without normal hepatobiliary are hypointense as compared with the well-enhanced hyperintense background liver. However, approximately 6%–15% of hypervascular HCCs demonstrate isointensity or hyperintensity (Kitao A, et al, Eur Radiol, Oct 2011;21(10):2056-66).

Hypothesis: The reason for hyperintensity in some HCC lesions was previously shown to be due to overexpression of organic anion transporting polypeptide 8 (OATP8) (Kitao A, et al, Radiology, Sep 2010;256(3):817-26). The authors speculated that there might be a correlation of the tumor marker production and signal intensity (SI) on hepatobiliary phase images, which would reflect distinct genomic and proteomic expression of HCC. Thus, authors stated that “the purpose of this study was to analyze the correlation among the pathologic and biologic features, tumor marker production, with signal intensity (SI) on hepatobiliary phase gadoxetic acid–enhanced MR images of HCC” (Kitao A, et al, Radiology, Dec 2012;265(3):780-9).

Experimental design: From April 2008 to September 2011, 180 surgically resected HCCs in 180 patients (age, 65.0 years ± 10.3 [range, 34–83 years]; 138 men, 42 women) were classified as either hypointense (n = 158) or hyperintense (n = 22) compared with the signal intensity of the background liver on hepatobiliary phase gadoxetic acid–enhanced MR images (Abstract of the study).

Pathologic features were analyzed.

Serum analysis and immunohistochemical staining was performed and following were compared:

  1. Alpha fetoprotein (AFP) – is a main tumor marker of HCCs. AFP is the most abundant plasma protein found in the human fetus and plasma levels decrease rapidly after birth. A level above 500 nanograms/milliliter of AFP in adults can be indicative of hepatocellular carcinoma, germ cell tumors, and metastatic cancers of the liver.
  2. Absence of protein induced by vitamin K or antagonist-II (PIVKA-II) – is a clinically important serum tumor marker. PIVKAII is an incomplete coagulation factor prothrombin II whose production is related to the absence of vitamin K or the presence of the antagonist of vitamin K, which is the cofactor of g carboxylase that converts precursor into prothrombin.

Serum levels of both AFP and PIVKA-II correlate with HCC malignancy and prognosis (Miyaaki H, et al, J Gastroenterol, Dec 2007;42(12):962-8).

Results: The hyperintense HCCs showed significantly higher differentiation grade than the hypointense HCCs (P = .028). There was a significant difference in the proliferation pattern between the hypointense and hyperintense HCCs (P < .001) and the hyperintense HCCs showed a significantly lower rate of portal vein invasion than that of hypointense HCCs (P = .039). The serum levels of tumor markers AFP, AFP-L3, and PIVKA-II were significantly lower in the patients with hyperintense HCCs than in those with

hypointense HCCs (P = .003, .004, and .026). In addition, immunohistochemical analysis revealed that the expression of FP and PIVKA-II was lower in hyperintense than in hypointense HCCs (both P < .001). Also, hyperintense HCCs showed lower recurrence rate than hypointense HCCs (P = .039).

Conclusion: Variation was observed within differently stained lesions of HCC in the hepatobiliary phase gadoxetic acid–enhanced MR images as evident in tumor marker expression, proliferation pattern, differentiation grade, immunohistochemical analysis and recurrence.  The results lead to the hypothesis that hyperintense HCCs in the hepatobiliary phase gadoxetic acid–enhanced MR images might represent a particular type of HCC that is hypervascular and biologically less aggressive as compared to hypovascular HCCs. Interestingly, this research is another great example where tumor heterogeneity has been brought to light (similar to genetic heterogeneity in triple negative breast cancer deciphered by Lehmann BD, et al, 2011). The heterogeneity might be the basis of answers to why a particular therapy fails in a certain tumor type and fortifying evidence for appropriate analysis of the tumor for obtaining the desired tumor response from a particular drug.

Reference:

Kitao A, et al, Radiology, Dec 2012;265(3):780-9

Strijkers GJ, et al, Anticancer Agents Med Chem, May 2007;7(3):291-305

Schuhmann-Giampieri G, et al, Radiology, Apr 1992;183(1):59-64

Kitao A, et al, Radiology, Sep 2010;256(3):817-26

Kitao A, et al, Eur Radiol, Oct 2011;21(10):2056-66

Kitao A, et al, Radiology, Sep 2010;256(3):817-26

Miyaaki H, et al, J Gastroenterol, Dec 2007;42(12):962-8

Lehmann BD, et al, J Clin Invest, 2011;121(7):2750–2767

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Author and Reporter: Ritu Saxena, Ph.D.

On June 4, 2012, I authored a post on HBV and HCV-associated Liver Cancer: Important Insights from the Genome https://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com/2012/06/04/hbv-and-hcv-associated-liver-cancer-important-insights-from-the-genome/ reporting about the major role of chromatin remodeling complexes and involvement of both interferon and oxidative stress pathways in hepatocellular malignant proliferation and transformation based on the genes showing recurrent mutations in the observed genes.

In this post, I have discussed the latest research on cyclin B1 and Sec62 expression in PBMCs of HCC patients and how their elevated expression correlates to significantly to negative prognostic value in terms of recurrence-free survival.

Researchers at the Changhai and Gongli Hospital in Shanghai, Military Medical University, People’s Republic of China recently identified the candidate biomarkers for HBV-related HCC recurrence after surgery. The research was published in the June 2012 issue of Molecular Cancer journal. According to the group findings, Cyclin B1 and Sec62 may serve as effective biomarkers and potential therapeutic targets for HBV-related HCC recurrence after surgery.

Research article: Identification of cyclin B1 and Sec62 as biomarkers for recurrence in patients with HBV-related hepatocellular carcinoma after surgical resection. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22682366

HCC background and Research Problem: Hepatocellular carcinoma is cancer of the liver. It is different from Metastaticc liver cancer, which starts in another organ (such as the breast or colon) and spreads to the liver. The most frequent factors causing HCC include chronic viral hepatitis (types B and C), alcohol intake and afla- toxin exposure.

In most cases, scarring of the liver referred to as cirrhosis is an important risk factor for HCC. Cirrhosis may be caused by:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001325/.

However, patients with hepatitis B or C are at risk for liver cancer, even if they have not developed cirrhosis.

According to the data from International Agency for Research on Cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide, with over a half million deaths per annum. http://www-dep.iarc.fr/

In China, a very high infection rates with HBV have been reported. According to the recent statistics reported by Jemal et al in 2011, HCC cases occurring in China account for 55% of the total cases reported in the world. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=Global%20Cancer%20Statistics%20Jemal

Surgical resection, although provides an opportunity for cure, however, frequent recurrence post surgery has posed a major challenge to longterm survival. Pertinent to their research, authors state “Frequent tumor recurrence after surgery is related to its poor prognosis. Although gene expression signatures have been associated with outcome, the molecular basis of HCC recurrence is not fully understood..”.

Research: To determine the molecular basis of HCC, authors used the Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) to predict the recurrence of HCC after surgery. Use of PBMCs was in contrast to previous studies that used just the liver tissues. PBMCs have the advantage of being easily obtained in the clinical setting. Thus, identification of biomarkers using PBMCs would be a great way to predict the recurrence of HCC post surgery.

A microarray-based gene expression profiling was performed to indentify candidate genes related to HCC recurrence. In all, mRNA derived from 6 HCC cases (3 cases with recurrence and 3 without recurrence) were subjected to genome-wide analysis. Some critical genes were indentified including cyclin B1 (CCNB1), SEC62 homolog (S. cerevisiae) (SEC62), and baculoviral IAP repeat-containing 3 (BIRC3), suggesting that they probably play important roles in the pathogenesis of HCC recurrence. To confirm the results of microarray analysis, the mRNA and protein expressions of these 3 genes were measured in 80 HCC samples from HCC cases and 30 samples from healthy cases. The authors found that the transcriptional and protein expressions of cyclin B1, Sec62, and Birc3 in the PBMCs were significantly higher in HCC samples than those in the non-recurrent and normal samples.

Furthermore, to determine the clinicopathologic significance of cyclin B1, Sec62, and Birc3 in HCC, immunohistochemical analysis from 35 recurrent tissues and 45 nonrecurrent revealed that the protein levels of cyclin B1, Sec62, and Birc3 were substantially higher in the recurrent tissues than those in the non-recurrent samples. Thus, the immunohistochemical results from tissues were consistent with the previous transcriptional and protein results in PBMCs.

Conclusion of study:  The authors discussed that “In recent years, studies on malignant tumors has primarily focused on cell proliferation, migration, and apoptosis. Cyclin B1, Sec62, and Birc3, chosen in this study according to our microarray analysis, likely play important roles in cell proliferation and migration. They can exert a tumor-promoting effect on HCC by regulating cell cycle and protein translocation.” As derived from the statistical methods employed in the research, elevated cyclin B1 and Sec62 expression in PBMCs had a significantly negative prognostic value in terms of recurrence-free survival, which hints the potential use of these molecular markers to predict the risk of tumor recurrence after surgery and to act as therapeutic targets to reduce tumor recurrence and improve clinical therapies.

Thus, these results revealed that cyclin B1 and Sec62 may be candidate biomarkers and potential therapeutic targets for HBV-related HCC recurrence after surgery.

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Author: Ritu Saxena, PhD

Updated on July 5, 2013 (research article published in New England Journal of Medicine regarding the role of SALL4 gene in aggressive hepatocellular carcinoma)

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common malignant tumors in the world. The incidence of HCC varies considerably with the geographic area because of differences in the major causative factors. Chronic hepatitis B and C, mostly in the cirrhotic stage, are responsible for the great majority of cases of HCC worldwide.

Hepatitis B and C viruses (HBV/HCV) can be implicated in the development of HCC in an indirect way, through induction of chronic inflammation, or directly by means of viral proteins or, in the case of HBV, by creation of mutations by integration into the genome of the hepatocyte.http://www.wjso.com/content/3/1/27

With the advent of genome sequencing methodologies, it was about time that the scientists look clues within the genome of HCC tumor cells that would provide clues for disease progression via virus integration into the liver cells.

Two studies published in the recent issue of Nature Genetics (May 2012) explored the genome of HCC cells for genetic mutations that might be related to HBV and HCV highlighting the types of genetic mutations that underlie the liver cancer hepatocellular carcinoma, including forms of the disease related to hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus infection.

In the first study, Sung et al performed an extensive whole genome analysis using a large sample size of 88 Chinese individuals with HCC http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=Genome-wide%20survey%20of%20recurrent%20HBV This was in the fact first unbiased, genome-wide, HBV-integration map in HCC leading to new recurrent integration sites and molecular mechanisms.

Although integration of viral DNA sequence within HCC genome has been reported in several studies, however, fewer cases of recurring mutations within genes during these integrations have been studied. The reason might be limited sample size in these studies. Tumor and non-tumor adjacent liver cells were surveyed in 81 HBV positive and 7 HBV negative HCC tumor samples. After the survey of whole genome of the 88 patients, several viral integration sites were discovered referred to as breakpoints. The breakpoints were found to be much more common in tumor than normal samples. Although the observed breakpoints were randomly distributed across the genome, a handful or frequently occurring sites referred to as ‘hotspots’ were discovered. The frequency of integration revealed that there were five genes with recurring integrations in HBV tumors- TERT, MLL4, CCNE5, SENP1, and ROCK1.

Apart from genome analysis, expression levels of the 5 genes implicated in the study were determined. In other words, the levels of proteins formed from the genes were compared and it was observed that samples with HBV integration had significantly higher level of protein expression of TERT, MLL4 and CCNE5 than the samples harboring no HBV integration sites. Although not statistically significant, overexpression of SENP1 and ROCK1 genes was also observed in HBV integration samples. This lead to an important conclusion from the study that the five genes that harbor recurrent HBV integrations might be implicated in HCC tumor development and that overexpression of these proteins is a probable molecular mechanism of tumorigenesis.

Interestingly, analysis of the HBV analysis revealed that almost 40% of the HBV genomes were cleaved at approximately 1,800 bp and then integrated into the human genome. The cleaved HBV sites had the necessary machinery (enhancers and ORF replication sites) for protein formation.

The study also confirmed the popular belief that HBV integrations might worsen the prognosis of HCC patients revealing a significant correlation between the number of HBV integrations and the survival of patients.An interesting observation from the study that had not been reported before was that HBV integration was associated with the occurrence of HCC at a younger age.

The study presented convincing evidence that chromosomal instability of HCC genome may originate from HBV integration.

A parallel study published in the same issue of Nature Genetics explored the genome of HCC tumors to gain insights into HBV and HCV-related genomic alterations. The research team sequenced whole-exon (protein forming genomic regions) of 27 liver tumors from 25 patients and compared with the corresponding genome sequences from matched white blood cell samples.

The study involved both HBV-related and HCV-related tumors along with two samples of tumors from individuals without HBV or HCV infection. The genome wide sequencing of HCC tumor cells revealed several mutations that included deletions and mutations of genes with predicted functional consequences. “Considering the high complexity and heterogeneity of [hepatocellular carcinomas] of both etiological and genetic aspects,” they concluded, “further molecular classification is required for appropriate diagnosis and therapy in personalized medicine.” Additionally, recurrent alterations were observed in the four genes – ARID1ARPS6KA3NFE2L2 and IRF2 that had not been previously described in HCC. The comprehensive mutation pattern observed in the study might be indicative of specific mutagenesis mechanisms occurring in tumor cells.

Authors said “Although no common somatic mutations were identified in the multicentric tumor pairs,” further stating “their whole-genome substitution patterns were similar, suggesting that these tumors developed from independent mutations, although their shared etiological backgrounds may have strongly influenced their somatic mutation patterns.”The researchers suggested a major role of chromatin remodeling complexes and involvement of both interferon and oxidative stress pathways in hepatocellular malignant proliferation and transformation based on the genes showing recurrent mutations in the observed genes.

http://www.genomeweb.com/sequencing/studies-explore-genetics-behind-hepatitis-b-and-c-virus-associated-liver-cancers

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=Genome-wide%20survey%20of%20recurrent%20HBV

Thus, in both the studies new genes recurrently altered in HCC were identified along with uncovering some important clues relating to the molecular mechanism of virus-associated HCC.

Role of SALL4 in HCC

The oncofetal gene SALL4 is a marker of a subtype of HCC with progenitor-like features and is associated with a poor prognosis. Investigators at Cancer Science Institute of Singapore, National University of Singapore studied the role of oncofetal gene, SALL4 in HCC and the results were published were in a recent issue of New England Journal of Medicine ((Yong KJ, et al, Oncofetal Gene SALL4 in Aggressive Hepatocellular Carcinoma. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23758232). Yong and colleagues (2013) screened specimens from patients with primary HCC for the expression of SALL4 and carried out a clinicopathological analysis. Loss-of-function studies were then performed to evaluate the role of SALL4 in hepatocarcinogenesis and its potential as a molecular target for therapy. Furthermore, in vitro functional and in vivo xenograft assays were performed to assess the therapeutic effects of a peptide that targets SALL4.

According to the results, SALL4 is an oncofetal protein that is expressed in the human fetal liver and silenced in the adult liver, but it is reexpressed in a subgroup of patients who have HCC and an unfavorable prognosis. Gene-expression analysis showed the enrichment of progenitor-like gene signatures with overexpression of proliferative and metastatic genes in SALL4-positive HCC. Loss-of-function studies confirmed the critical role of SALL4 in cell survival and tumorigenicity. The peptide targeting SALL4 blocked ­SALL4-corepressor interactions that released suppression of PTEN and inhibited tumor formation in xenograft assays in vivo. In conclusion, the results from the study indicate that SALL4 is a marker for a progenitor subclass of HCC with an aggressive phenotype. The absence of SALL4 expression in the healthy adult liver enhances the potential of SALL4 as a treatment target in HCC.

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