A microRNA biomarker of hepatocellular carcinoma recurrence following liver transplantation accounting for within-patient heterogeneity.


Liver cancer, of which hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is by far the most common type, is the second most deadly cancer (746,000 deaths in 2012). Currently, the only curative treatment for HCC is surgery to remove the malignancy (resection) or to remove the entire diseased liver followed by transplantation of healthy liver tissue. Given the shortage of healthy livers, it is crucial to provide transplants to patients that have the best chance of long-term survival. Currently, transplantation is determined via the Milan criteria—patients within Milan (single tumor < 5 cm or 2–3 tumors < 3 cm with no extrahepatic spread nor intrahepatic vascular invasion) are typically eligible for transplantation. However, combining microRNA expression profiling with the Milan criteria can improve prediction of recurrence. HCC often presents with multiple distinct tumor foci arising from local spread of a primary tumor or from the oncogenic predisposition of the diseased liver. Substantial genomic heterogeneity between tumor foci within a single patient has been reported; therefore, biomarker development must account for the possibility of highly heterogeneous genomic profiles from the same individual. MicroRNA profiling was performed on 180 HCC tumor samples from 89 patients who underwent liver transplantation at the University of Rochester Medical Center. The primary outcome was recurrence-free survival time, and patients were observed for 3 years post-transplantation. MicroRNA expression profiles were used to develop a biomarker that distinguishes HCC patients at greater risk of recurrence post-transplantation. Unsupervised clustering uncovered two distinct subgroups with vast differences in standard transplantation selection criteria and recurrence-free survival times. These subgroups were subsequently used to identify microRNAs strongly associated with HCC recurrence. Our results show that reduced expression of five specific microRNAs is significantly associated with HCC recurrence post-transplantation. MicroRNA profiling of distinct tumor foci, coupled with methods that address within-subject tumor heterogeneity, has the potential to significantly improve prediction of HCC recurrence post-transplantation. The development of a clinically applicable HCC biomarker would inform treatment options for patients and contribute to liver transplant selection criteria for practitioners.

BMC Medical Genomics
Qingyan Lilly Xie
Data Scientist at Paychex
Matthew N. McCall
Associate Professor of Biostatistics and Biomedical Genetics