Hepatology Unit, Department of Medical and Pediatric Sciences, Policlinic of Catania, University of Catania, Catania, Italy.
Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common malignant tumors in some areas of the world. In most cases, HCC is diagnosed at a late stage. Therefore, the prognosis of patients with HCC is generally poor. The recommended screening strategy for patients with cirrhosis includes the determination of serum α-fetoprotein (AFP) levels and an abdominal ultrasound every 6 months to detect HCC at an earlier stage. AFP, however, is a marker characterized by poor sensitivity and specificity, and abdominal ultrasound is highly dependent on the operator's experience. In addition to AFP, Lens culinaris agglutinin-reactive AFP (AFP-L3), des-γ-carboxy prothrombin (DCP), glypican-3 (GPC-3), osteopontin (OPN), and several other biomarkers (such as squamous cell carcinoma antigen-immunoglobulin M complexes [SCCA-IgM], alpha-1-fucosidase [AFU], chromogranin A [CgA], human hepatocyte growth factor, insulin-like growth factor) have been proposed as markers for the early detection of HCC. For these markers, we describe the mechanisms of production, and their diagnostic and prognosis roles. None of them is optimal; however, when used together, their sensitivity in detecting HCC is increased. Recent research has shown that some biomarkers have mitogenic and migratory activities in the angiogenesis of HCC and are a factor of tumor growth.