How to detect hepatocellular carcinoma in cirrhosis
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Cirrhosis predisposes to hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) which develops by sequential steps of de-differentiation of hepatocytes from regenerative nodules via borderline (dysplastic) nodules to frankly malignant HCC. Effective treatment depends on early recognition of HCC, so the key tasks for imaging are firstly recognising the presence of a suspicious lesion, and secondly differentiating between benign, borderline and malignant nodules. Screening of high-risk cirrhotic patients with sonography and measurement of alpha fetoprotein (AFP) is helpful but will not reliably differentiate small HCC from benign or dysplastic nodules. Large HCCs can usually be recognised by their characteristic morphology on imaging, but the appearances of smaller benign and malignant nodules show considerable overlap on unenhanced sonography, CT and MRI. Increasing degrees of histological malignancy are associated with increasing arterialisation and loss of portal blood supply, so the recognition of HCC requires the use of dynamic imaging with contrast-enhanced CT or T1-weighted MRI with gadolinium enhancement. Sonography with microbubble contrast media now offers another method for detecting arterialised nodules; however, some non-malignant nodules show arterial hypervascularity and a minority of HCCs are hypovascular, so the assessment of perfusion does not conclusively distinguish benign from malignant lesions. Kupffer cell function is another attribute of liver tissue which can be explored using MRI with superparamagnetic iron oxide particles (SPIO). Experience thus far suggests that uptake of SPIO is an effective discriminator between benign and malignant nodules. The combination of SPIO with gadolinium-enhanced MRI offers the opportunity for imaging characterisation of cirrhotic nodules by cellular function as well as by blood supply, and this approach is now proposed as the examination of choice for detecting HCC in cirrhosis.
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