International journal of molecular sciences 2018 03 2819(4) pii 10.3390/ijms19041007
Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the third and the fifth leading cause of cancer related death worldwide in men and in women, respectively. HCC generally has a poor prognosis, with a very low 5-year overall survival, due to delayed diagnosis and treatment. Early tumour detection and timely intervention are the best strategies to reduce morbidity and mortality in HCC patients. Histological evaluation of liver biopsies is the gold standard for cancer diagnosis, although it is an invasive, time-consuming and expensive procedure. Recently, the analysis of circulating free DNA (cfDNA) and RNA molecules released by tumour cells in body fluids, such as blood serum, saliva and urine, has attracted great interest for development of diagnostic assays based on circulating liver cancer molecular biomarkers. Such "liquid biopsies" have shown to be useful for the identification of specific molecular signatures in nucleic acids released by cancer cells, such as gene mutations and altered methylation of DNA as well as variations in the levels of circulating microRNAs (miRNAs) and long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs). Body fluids analysis may represent a valuable strategy to monitor liver disease progression in subjects chronically infected with hepatitis viruses or cancer relapse in HCC treated patients. Several studies showed that qualitative and quantitative assays evaluating molecular profiles of circulating cell-free nucleic acids could be successfully employed for early diagnosis and therapeutic management of HCC patients. This review describes the state of art on the use of liquid biopsy for cancer driver gene mutations, deregulated DNA methylation as well as miRNA levels in HCC diagnosis.