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Abstract

The role of HBV and HCV in the course of primary liver cancer in patients who are negative for HBsAg has been debated. Using a combination of serological and polymerase chain reaction assays, we investigated the association between HCV and HBV infections and primary liver cancer in 24 HBsAg-negative patients living in France. The presence of HCV RNA and HBV DNA sequences was tested for in serum and in tumorous and nontumorous liver samples. Twelve patients had anti-HCV, and 11 patients had anti-HBs and/or anti-HBc. HCV RNA sequences were found in the serum samples of all anti-HCV–positive patients and none of the patients who were negative. Patients with HCV viremia had HCV RNA genomic sequences and presumed replicative intermediates in both tumorous and nontumorous specimens. Sequence analysis of a hypervariable region in the E2/NS1 gene of HCV showed significant variations between the viral molecules isolated from the nontumorous, tumorous and serum samples. This eliminated the hypothesis of the contamination of the tumor by nontumorous cells and serum particles and assessed that liver tumor cells did contain HCV RNA genomes.

Eleven of 22 patients tested had HBV DNA in the serum; 5 patients were anti-HBc positive and anti-HBs positive. Patients with HBV viremia had HBV DNA sequences in both tumorous and nontumorous liver specimens. Selective loss of part of the HBV genome in the tumorous tissue of two of these patients suggested HBV DNA persistence in clonally expanded malignant cells. Only 4 of the 22 patients were negative for both viruses. Our results show that HBsAg-negative hepatocellular cancer in France is associated with chronic HBV or HCV infection and, in some cases, both; these findings are consistent with an etiological role for HBV and HCV in HCC that develops in cirrhotic patients living in areas of low prevalence. (HEPATOLOGY 1993;17:20–29.)