BACKGROUND: Hepatocellular carcinoma prognosis depends on both liver and tumor determinants, especially on maximum tumor diameter, multifocality, and presence of portal vein thrombosis, despite apparently complete tumor removal by resection or liver transplantation.AIMS: To examine parameters of hepatocellular carcinoma aggressiveness as tumor size increases.METHODS: A large hepatocellular carcinoma database was examined for trends in serum alpha-fetoprotein and the percentage of patients with macroscopic portal vein thrombosis or tumor multifocality.RESULTS: A total of 13,016 hepatocellular carcinoma patients were identified having full tumor and survival data. Of these, 76.56% were male and 23.44% were female, with a median age of 64.4 years. We found that as the maximum tumor diameter increased, there was a significant trend for increased alpha-fetoprotein levels (P<0.001) and an increased percentage of patients with either portal vein thrombosis or tumor multifocality, each P<0.0001. Furthermore, the increases of both alpha-fetoprotein and portal vein thrombosis were proportionately greater than the related maximum tumor diameter increases. These trends of increased alpha-fetoprotein, portal vein thrombosis, and multifocality with increasing maximum tumor diameter had non-linear patterns. Within alpha-fetoprotein and multifocality trends, there were identifiable sub-trends associated with specific maximum tumor diameter ranges.CONCLUSIONS: The greater fold-increases in alpha-fetoprotein and portal vein thrombosis compared with increases in maximum tumor diameter imply that hepatocellular carcinoma characteristics may change with increasing size to a more aggressive phenotype, suggesting that follow-up tumor sampling might be useful, in addition to baseline tumor sampling, for optimal therapeutic choices to be made.
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