Human hepatocellular carcinomas with “Stemness”-related marker expression: keratin 19 expression and a poor prognosis


  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.

  • This work was supported by a Korea Science and Engineering Foundation grant (KOSEF) (20100008075), a National Research Foundation grant (R13-2002-054-03004-0) funded by the Korean government (MOST; to Y.N.P.), and grants from the SNUBH Research Fund (11-2009-008) and Korean Health Technology R&D Project, Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, Republic of Korea (A101397; to H.K.).


There is a recently proposed subtype of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) that is histologically similar to usual HCC, but characterized by the expression of “stemness”-related markers. A large-scale study on two different cohorts of HCCs was performed to investigate the clinicopathologic features and epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT)-related protein expression status of this subtype of HCCs. The expression status of stemness-related (e.g., keratin 19 [K19], cluster of differentiation [CD]133, epithelial cell adhesion molecule [EpCAM], and c-kit) and EMT-related markers (e.g., snail, S100A4, urokinase plasminogen activator receptor [uPAR], ezrin, vimentin, E-cadherin, and matrix metalloproteinase [MMP]2) were examined using tissue microarrays from cohort 1 HCCs (n = 137). K19 protein expression in cohort 2 HCCs (n = 237) was correlated with the clinicopathologic parameters and messenger RNA (mRNA) levels of K19, uPAR, VIL2, Snail, Slug, and Twist. K19, EpCAM, c-kit, and CD133 positivity were observed in 18.2%, 35.0%, 34.3%, and 24.8%, respectively. K19 was most frequently expressed in combination with at least one other stemness-related marker (92.0%). K19-positive HCCs demonstrated more frequent major vessel invasion and increased tumor size, compared to K19-negative HCCs (P < 0.05). K19 was most significantly associated with EMT-related protein expression (e.g., vimentin, S100A4, uPAR, and ezrin) (P < 0.05) and a poor prognosis (overall survival: P = 0.018; disease-free survival: P = 0.007) in cohort 1. In cohort 2, HCCs with high K19 mRNA levels demonstrated higher mRNA levels of Snail, uPAR, and MMP2 (P < 0.05). K19-positive HCCs demonstrated more frequent microvascular invasion, fibrous stroma, and less tumor-capsule formation, compared to K19-negative HCCs (P < 0.05). K19 expression was a significant independent predictive factor of poor disease-free survival (P = 0.032). Conclusion: K19 was well correlated with clinicopathologic features of tumor aggressiveness, compared to other stemness-related proteins. K19-positive HCCs showed significantly increased EMT-related protein and mRNA expression, suggesting that they may acquire more invasive characteristics, compared to K19-negative HCCs through the up-regulation of EMT-associated genes. (HEPATOLOGY 2011;)