March 8, 2015 | by Darrin Joy
Liver cancer is terribly difficult to cure. Despite significant treatment advances, five-year survival rates remain at about 15 percent overall — and they rapidly approach zero when the disease is found too late. Findings by City of Hope's Peiguo Chu, M.D., Ph.D., and a team of scientists may help better those odds.
Scarring of the liver, called cirrhosis, is a major risk factor for liver cancer. It’s caused most often by infection with the hepatitis B or C viruses, alone or together, as well as alcohol abuse and a build-up of fat in the liver known as fatty liver disease.
Determining if cancer has developed in a cirrhotic liver is difficult, and early detection is particularly challenging. Unlike breast and colon cancers, liver cancer appears to have no precancerous lesions that might indicate cancer is imminent, according to Chu, a professor in the Department of Pathology. Various abnormal cells in the scarred liver can hint at the presence of disease, but they are unreliable.
Chu believes a protein called glypican 3 may offer a better answer. In a study recently published in the journal Carcinogenesis, his research team found that glypican 3 was present at much higher levels in liver cancer than in normal liver tissue and in cirrhotic liver tissue that was not cancerous.
Levels of the protein also correlated well with those of other molecules known or believed to be linked to liver tumors. In other words, if glypican 3 is present, it’s a good bet cancer has developed and needs treatment.
Glypican 3 also stands out as a possible tool for diagnosing cancer for another reason. “Glypican 3 can easily be found in blood tests, making it a very practical biomarker for liver cancer,” Chu said. Testing for the protein could lead to earlier diagnosis, and that could mean better outcomes for patients.
Other City of Hope researchers on the study include Yun Yen, M.D., Ph.D., the Dr. & Mrs. Allen Y. Chao Chair in Developmental Cancer Therapeutics and chair of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology; lead author Xiyong Liu; Sean Wang, M.D., M.P.H.; Keqiang Zhang; Hang Zhang; and Lijun Xue.
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