Aflatoxin is believed to be a major causative agent in the high incidence of primary liver cancer seen in certain regions of the world. In Fujian Province, an aflatoxin-endemic region of China, we compared the cigarette smoking habits of 200 primary hepatoma patients with those of 200 matched nonhepatoma controls. We excluded from our study all individuals with evidence of hepatitis B virus serum antigen and/or alcoholic cirrhosis. Interestingly, two groups of hepatoma patients could be discerned. In patients more than 50 years of age, a significantly higher number of cases of primary hepatoma was found among nonsmokers than smokers (odds ratio = 2.06; 95% confidence interval = 1.32–3.20). In patients less than 50 years of age, this difference was not seen. Previous studies in the rat, mouse and duck had suggested that agents present in cigarette smoke might induce a cytochrome P450-mediated detoxication pathway, leading to protection against aflatoxin-induced primary liver cancer. Our clinical data in the present study are therefore consistent with the previous laboratory animal experiments.

Mutations of the p53 gene are found in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common form of primary liver cancer. Specific mutations might reflect exposure to specific carcinogens and we have screened HCC samples from patients in 14 different countries to determine the frequency of a hotspot mutation at codon 249 of the tumour suppressor p53 gene.

We detected mutations in 17% of tumours (12/72) from four countries in south Africa and the southeast coast of Asia. There was no codon 249 mutation in 95 specimens of HCC from other geographical locations including North America, Europe, Middle East, and Japan. Worldwide, the presence of the codon 249 mutation in HCCs correlated with high risk of exposure to aflatoxins and the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Further studies were completed in two groups of HBV-infected patients at different risks of exposure to aflatoxins. 53% of patients (8/15) from Mozambique at high risk of aflatoxin exposure had a tumour with a codon 249 mutation, in contrast with 8% of patients from Transkei (1/12) who were at low risk.

HCC is an endemic disease in Mozambique and accounts for up to two thirds of all tumours in men. A codon 249 mutation of the p53 gene identifies an endemic form of HCC strongly associated with dietary aflatoxin intake.