Steatohepatitic hepatocellular carcinoma is a distinct variant of hepatocellular carcinoma strongly associated with underlying nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. The molecular biology of steatohepatitic hepatocellular carcinoma is not fully elucidated, and thus we aimed to investigate the molecular underpinnings of this entity.
Transcriptomic analysis using RNAseq was performed on eight tumor-nonneoplastic pairs of steatohepatitic hepatocellular carcinoma with comparison to conventional hepatocellular carcinoma transcriptomes curated in The Cancer Genome Atlas. Immunohistochemistry was used to validate key RNA-level findings.
Steatohepatitic hepatocellular carcinoma demonstrated a distinctive differential gene expression profile compared with The Cancer Genome Atlas curated conventional hepatocellular carcinomas (n = 360 cases), indicating the distinctive steatohepatitic hepatocellular carcinoma morphology is associated with a unique gene expression profile. Pathway analysis comparing tumor-nonneoplastic pairs revealed significant upregulation of the hedgehog pathway based on GLI1 overexpression and significant downregulation of carnitine palmitoyltransferase 2 transcript. Glutamine synthetase transcript was significantly upregulated, and fatty acid binding protein 1 transcript was significantly downregulated and immunohistochemically confirmed, indicating steatohepatitic hepatocellular carcinoma tumor cells display a zone 3 phenotype.
Steatohepatitic hepatocellular carcinoma demonstrates a distinctive morphology and gene expression profile, phenotype of zone 3 hepatocytes, and activation of the hedgehog pathway and repression of carnitine palmitoyltransferase 2, which may be important in tumorigenesis.

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