BACKGROUND: The translational interest in the intratumoral heterogeneity of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) has been increasing. The dismal prognosis of this pathology is linked to the features of the HCC harbouring cancer stem cells (CSC), represented by EpCAM-expression. However, the extent of the impact of intratumoral distribution of CSC-features, both on the recurrence after curative resection and on clinical outcome, remains unknown. To address this, we investigated the spatial heterogeneity of CSC-features with the aim of identifying the unique HCC patient subgroups amenable to adjuvant treatment.
METHODS: We designed a tissue microarray (TMA) from patients who had received liver resection between 2011 and 2017. Tumor specimens were sampled at multiple locations (n = 3-8). EpCAM-positivity was assessed for intensity and proportion by applying a score dividing three groups: (i) negative (E-/-); (ii) heterogeneous (E-/+); and (iii) homogeneous (E+/+). The groups were further analysed with regard to time-to-recurrence (TTR) and recurrence-free-survival (RFS).
RESULTS: We included 314 tumor spots from 69 patients (76.8% male, median age 66, liver cirrhosis/fibrosis 75.8%). The risk factors were alcohol abuse (26.2%), NASH (13.1%), HBV (15.5%), HCV (17.9%) and others (27.4%), representative of a typical Western cohort. E+/+ patients experienced significantly shorter TTR and RFS compared to E+/- and E-/- patients (TTR 5 vs. 19 months, p = 0.022; RFS 5 vs. 14 vs. 21 months, p = 0.016). Only homogeneous EpCAM-positivity correlated with higher AFP levels (> 400 ng/ml, p = 0.031).
CONCLUSIONS: Spatial heterogeneity of EpCAM-expression was markedly present in the cohort. Of note, only homogeneous EpCAM-expression correlated significantly with early recurrence, whereas heterogeneous EpCAM-expression was associated with clinical endpoints comparable to EpCAM-negativity. We identified a unique HCC subtype associated with a high risk of tumor recurrence.