BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Progressive hepatocarcinogenesis is a stepwise process that drives liver transformation. However, the molecular mechanisms of early liver transformation are far from clear. A role for microRNAs (miRNA) as diagnostic and prognostic factors in human tumours, including hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), is promising. We aimed to identify novel miRNA as biomarkers for differential diagnosis and predictors of disease progression.
METHODS: We used a low-density array platform to profile the expression of 664 mature miRNA in a cohort of 60 hepatitis C virus-positive liver lesions representative of all stages of progressive hepatocarcinogenesis. We validated selected miRNA in two independent patient series by qPCR and we characterized the genomic status of the miRNA cluster C19MC by fluorescent in situ hybridization and copy-number variation analyses.
RESULTS: A 18-miRNA signature distinguished cirrhosis, dysplastic nodules and HCC lesions. Four miRNAs overexpressed in HCCs belonged to chromosome 19 miRNA cluster (C19MC). Significant overexpression of C19MC in early HCC compared to dysplastic nodules could be confirmed in a second series of hepatitis B virus-related liver lesions (n = 30). In a third series of 61 HCCs, C19MC cluster was overexpressed in HCCs compared to matched cirrhotic parenchyma and regardless of the type of viral infection. High C19MC miRNA levels were correlated with poor clinico-pathological features, increased risk of tumour recurrence and shorter overall survival time. HCCs overexpressing the C19MC cluster showed genetic amplification of the corresponding locus.
CONCLUSIONS: C19MC cluster is a novel molecular alteration characteristic of liver cancer and predictor of poor prognosis. C19MC is an attractive candidate for novel HCC therapies.