Journal of Gastroenterology

, Volume 48, Issue 3, pp 382–390 | Cite as

Inhibition of hepatocellular carcinoma by PegIFNα-2a in patients with chronic hepatitis C: a nationwide multicenter cooperative study

  • Namiki Izumi
  • Yasuhiro Asahina
  • Masayuki Kurosaki
  • Gotaro Yamada
  • Tsutomu Kawai
  • Eiji Kajiwara
  • Yukishige Okamura
  • Takayuki Takeuchi
  • Osamu Yokosuka
  • Kazuya Kariyama
  • Joji Toyoda
  • Mie Inao
  • Eiji Tanaka
  • Hisataka Moriwaki
  • Hiroshi Adachi
  • Shinji Katsushima
  • Masatoshi Kudo
  • Kouichi Takaguchi
  • Yoichi Hiasa
  • Kazuaki Chayama
  • Hiroshi Yatsuhashi
  • Makoto Oketani
  • Hiromitsu Kumada
Open Access
Original Article—Liver, Pancreas, and Biliary Tract

Abstract

Background

We investigated whether the administration of maintenance doses of interferon prevented hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in patients with chronic hepatitis C.

Methods

Study 1: A multicenter, retrospective, cooperative study was carried out to determine whether long-term administration of low-dose peginterferon alpha-2a (PegIFNα-2a) prevented HCC development in patients with chronic hepatitis C. In total, 594 chronic hepatitis C patients without a history of HCC were enrolled and treated with 90 μg PegIFNα-2a administered weekly or bi-weekly for at least 1 year. Study 2: HCC developed in 16 of 99 additional patients without PegIFNα-2a treatment during 3.8 years of observation. A propensity-matched control study was then carried out to compare the incidence of HCC between the 59 patients who received low-dose PegIFNα-2a (PegIFNα-2a group) and 59 patients who did not receive PegIFNα-2a treatment (control group), matched for sex, age, platelet count, and total bilirubin levels.

Results

Study 1: HCC developed in 49 patients. The risk of HCC was lower in patients with undetectable hepatitis C virus RNA, ≤40 IU/L alanine aminotransferase (ALT), or ≤10 ng/L alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) 24 weeks after the start of therapy. Study 2: The incidence of HCC was significantly lower in the PegIFNα-2a group than in the control group.

Conclusions

Low-dose and long-term maintenance administration of PegIFNα-2a decreased the incidence of HCC in patients with normalized ALT and AFP levels at 24 weeks compared with patients without normal ALT and AFP levels.

Keywords

Chronic hepatitis C Hepatocellular carcinoma Peginterferon 

Introduction

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the sixth most common cancer worldwide, often develops because of long-term hepatitis B or C virus infection [1, 2]. In particular, chronic hepatitis C and hepatic cirrhosis increase the risk of HCC; the annual incidence of tumor development in such patients may be as high as 2–4 % [3, 4, 5]. The incidence of HCC decreases in patients who achieve a sustained virological response (SVR) to interferon (IFN) treatment, although the incidence remains high in non-SVR patients [6, 7, 8, 9]. A detailed analysis of HCC development revealed that chronic hepatitis C patients aged 65 years or more, especially those with advanced fibrosis of the liver, were at an increased risk of developing HCC [10]. For patients 65 years or older with advanced liver fibrosis, the dose of ribavirin is often reduced or the agent is discontinued, resulting in lower SVR rates in those with discontinuation of ribavirin. Establishing an effective treatment strategy for preventing the development of HCC is important for these high-risk patients.

Factors related to the development of HCC have been analyzed in patients who did not achieve an SVR even after IFN treatment; advanced fibrosis of the liver and high levels of serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT), and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) are risk factors for HCC development [11, 12]. A randomized controlled trial was conducted in Western countries to determine whether combined peginterferon and ribavirin treatment with weekly administration of 90 μg peginterferon alpha-2a (PegIFNα-2a) could prevent HCC in non-responders. A 3.5-year follow up showed that administration of a maintenance dose of PegIFNα-2a did not reduce tumor incidence in these patients [13]. However, after 8.5 years of observation, the incidence of HCC was decreased among those in the PegIFNα-2a group with cirrhosis [14]. Meanwhile, Bruix et al. [15] reported that maintenance therapy with PegIFNα-2b did not prevent HCC in chronic hepatitis C patients with cirrhosis. In Japan, long-term low-dose administration of natural IFN has been reported to decrease the incidence of HCC [16]. In light of these conflicting results, investigations should be carried out in a large number of patients with chronic hepatitis C to resolve the question of whether IFN treatment prevents the development of HCC.

We carried out a multicenter retrospective cooperative study of patients with chronic hepatitis C to determine whether those treated with 90 μg PegIFNα-2a without ribavirin had a reduced incidence of HCC compared with those not treated with IFN.

Patients and methods

Study 1: analysis of risk factors for HCC in patients treated with long-term low-dose-PegIFNα-2a

In total, at 21 hepatitis centers throughout Japan, 743 patients with hepatitis C who had received 90 μg of PegIFNα-2a therapy weekly or bi-weekly for 1 year or more without having received the full dose (180 μg) since December 2003 were examined retrospectively for the development of HCC. The end of enrollment in this study was the end of December 2008 and the end of follow up was the end of December 2010. Patients with a history of HCC before the start of therapy and those with a therapy period of less than 48 weeks were excluded, leaving 594 patients who had undergone long-term administration of PegIFNα-2a for analysis. At the 21 centers involved in this study, 4,753 patients with chronic hepatitis C had been treated; Peg-IFN and ribavirin combination treatment had been administered to 3,877 patients, 743 patients had received Peg-IFN alone, and 133 patients had not agreed to receive IFN (a flow diagram of the enrollment of patients in this study is shown in Fig. 1). In the patients with Peg-IFN and ribavirin combination treatment, the SVR rate was 43.8 %; SVR was not achieved in 2,179 patients, and in 776 of these patients, the combination therapy was discontinued owing to adverse events or the patient’s choice. Patients who failed to achieve an SVR were not included in this study, because the incidence of HCC is known to be reduced even in non-responders to IFN [17].
Fig. 1

Flow diagram of the patients’ enrollment in the study. Peg-IFNα pegylated interferon α, SVR sustained viral response, HCC hepatocellular carcinoma, w week

The backgrounds of the 594 patients studied are shown in Table 1. Findings from the liver biopsies of the patients were classified according to international standards [18]. Long-term PegIFNα-2a treatment is approved by the Japanese Medical Insurance system. Written informed consent was obtained from all patients prior to participation in this study. The study design was approved by the regional ethics committees of the 21 centers involved in this study, including the Musashino Red Cross Hospital, in accordance with the Helsinki Declaration. The 743 patients treated with PegIFNα-2a alone were not indicated for Peg-IFNα and ribavirin combination therapy because of anemia or heart disease. The 133 patients who did not agree to receive IFN served as the control group (see Fig. 1). A large proportion of the 594 study patients had advanced fibrosis of the liver and active inflammation. A dose of 90 μg PegIFNα-2a was administered to 512 and 82 patients weekly and biweekly, respectively, according to the patients’ wishes. There were no significant differences between the weekly and biweekly groups in the patients’ background data (data not shown).
Table 1

Background data of patients treated with PegIFNα-2a (n = 594)

 

n = 594

Age (years)

61.7 ± 11.7

Sex (male/female)

258/336

BMI

23.2 ± 3.3

Genotype (1/2)

443/151

Diagnosis (ASC/CH/LC)

4/460/130

History of excess alcohol consumption (≥60 g/day; yes/no)

118/376

Fibrosis (F0, 1, 2/F3, 4)

443/151

Inflammatory activity (A0, 1/A2, 3)

469/125

Diabetes mellitus (no/yes)

499/95

LDL cholesterol (mg/dL)

94.2 ± 31.1

Fasting blood sugar (mg/dL)

106.3 ± 28.5

White blood cell count (/mm3)

4,360 ± 1,470

Red blood cell count (×106/μL)

423.8 ± 56.4

Hemoglobin (g/dL)

13.3 ± 1.8

Platelet count (×103/μL)

137 ± 56

Albumin (g/dL)

4.0 ± 0.5

Total bilirubin (mg/dL)

0.8 ± 0.6

AST (IU/L)

65.8 ± 47.8

ALT (IU/L)

72.1 ± 68.0

Gamma-GTP (IU/L)

55.2 ± 51.3

Esophageal varices (no/yes)

344/31

Alpha fetoprotein (ng/L)

6.9 (4.2–13.8)

Once weekly or biweekly PegIFNα-2a

512:82

Baseline HCV RNA (KIU/mL)

1,024 (73–2,130)

Development of HCC (no/yes)

545/49

PegIFN pegylated interferon, BMI body mass index, ASC asymtotomatic carrier, CH chronic hepatitis, LC liver cirrhosis, LDL low-density lipoprotein, AST aspartate aminotransferase, ALT alanine aminotransferase, GTP guanosine triphosphate, HCV hepatitis C virus, HCC hepatocellular carcinoma

Values are means ± SD, with ranges in parentheses

The median duration of follow up in the PegIFNα-2a group was 1,273 days (range 228–2,768 days) and HCC was observed in 49 of the 594 patients (Table 1). Pretreatment and on-treatment factors associated with the development of HCC were analyzed by Student’s t-test, the Mann–Whitney U-test, and the χ2 test (Table 2). Independent factors for the development of HCC were assessed by multivariate analysis using logistic regression. The incidence of HCC was analyzed according to the ALT, AFP, and hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA levels 24 weeks after the start of PegIFNα-2a administration by using the Kaplan–Meier method. The risk of HCC was analyzed, using the Kaplan–Meier method, only in the non-responders with detectable HCV RNA during PegIFNα-2a administration by dividing them according to the ALT and AFP levels 24 weeks after the start of therapy. The incidence of HCC was compared between the patients with ALT levels of <41 IU/L and those with levels of ≥41 IU/L, and between patients with serum AFP levels of <10 ng/L and those with levels of ≥10 ng/mL at 24 weeks after starting treatment, because at most of the centers participating in the this study, the upper normal range of serum ALT is set at 40 IU/L, and the most significant difference in the incidence of HCC was observed between the PegIFNα-2a and control group with the cut-off serum ALT set at 41 IU/L and cutoff serum AFP set at 10 ng/mL, 24 weeks after starting treatment. The HCV RNA level was measured using the Amplicor Monitor method with a lower detection limit of 50 IU/L (Roche Diagnostics, Tokyo, Japan). A history of excess alcohol consumption was determined as >60 g alcohol per day in order to exclude alcoholic liver disease.
Table 2

Comparison of HCC and non-HCC patients with long-term PegIFNα-2a administration (n = 594)

 

Patients with or without development of HCC

p value

With HCC (n = 49)

Without HCC (n = 545)

Pretreatment parameters

 Age (years)

63.8 ± 1.7

61.3 ± 0.5

<0.05

 Sex (male/female)

32/17

226/319

<0.01

 BMI

24.0 ± 0.5

23.1 ± 0.2

n.s.

 Genotype (1/2)

47/6

397/148

n.s.

 History of excess alcohol consumption (≥60 g/day; yes/no)

11/38

107/338

n.s.

 Fibrosis (F0, 1, 2/F3, 4)

25/24

418/127

<0.001

 Inflammatory activity (A0, 1/A2, 3)

7/42

462/83

<0.001

 Diabetes mellitus (no/yes)

38/11

461/84

n.s.

 LDL cholesterol (mg/dL)

88.2 ± 9.0

94.7 ± 2.6

n.s.

 White blood cell count (/mm3)

4,355 ± 210

4,360 ± 64

n.s.

 Red blood cell count (×106/μL)

420.8 ± 8.1

424.1 ± 2.6

n.s.

 Hemoglobin (g/dL)

13.6 ± 0.3

13.3 ± 0.1

n.s.

 Platelet count (×103/μL)

106 ± 8

140 ± 2

<0.001

 Albumin (g/dL)

3.8 ± 0.1

4.0 ± 0.1

<0.001

 Total bilirubin (mg/dL)

1.2 ± 0.1

0.8 ± 0.1

<0.001

 AST (IU/L)

78.1 ± 6.8

64.6 ± 2.1

n.s.

 ALT (IU/L)

72.8 ± 9.7

72.0 ± 2.9

n.s.

 Gamma-GTP (IU/L)

68.7 ± 7.5

53.9 ± 2.3

n.s.

 Alpha fetoprotein (ng/L)

17.1 (4.4–36.8)

16.7 (4.1–23.1)

n.s.

 Esophageal varices

29.0 % (9/31)

6.4 % (22/344)

<0.01

On-treatment parameters

 ALT (IU/L)

59.4 ± 5.7

44.6 ± 1.8

<0.05

 Alpha fetoprotein (ng/L)

9.8 (4.6–17.4)

5.5 (3.7–11.1)

<0.01

 HCV RNA level (KIU/mL)

236 (<0.5–2,210)

21 (<0.5–1,780)

<0.05

n.s. not significant

An asymptomatic carrier was defined as a patient with a serum ALT level within the normal range and minimal inflammation or fibrosis in the biopsied tissues of the liver. Chronic hepatitis was defined as mild-to-severe fibrosis of the liver according to liver biopsy [18]. The diagnosis of liver cirrhosis was based on the results of histological examination of the biopsied liver tissues.

Study 2: incidence of HCC in the PegIFNα-2a therapy and non-administration (control) groups in comparison with propensity-matched controls

Ninety-nine of the 133 chronic hepatitis C patients who had not received IFN were examined as controls; patients in this group received liver-protective agents such as glycyrrhizin or were untreated, and the group was observed for more than 1 year. None of the individuals in the control groups had received IFN alone or PegIFNα and ribavirin combination treatment. They were treated for a median of 1,395 days (range 75–6,556 days). Fifty-nine of these patients underwent liver biopsy before the treatment and were considered the control group for the propensity-matched study. For the propensity-matched study, 59 patients were selected from the PegIFNα-2a group according to their age, sex, platelet count, and total bilirubin levels, which had been identified as independent pretreatment risk factors for the development of HCC in Study 1. The rates of HCC were analyzed using the Kaplan–Meier method, and the risk of HCC was analyzed particularly in patients with advanced fibrosis of the liver (F3 and F4).

Statistical analysis

Categorical data were compared using the χ2 test or Fisher’s exact test. The distributions of continuous variables were analyzed using Student’s t-test and the Mann–Whitney U-test for two groups. Multivariate analysis was conducted using logistic regression. The cumulative incidence curve was determined using the Kaplan–Meier method and differences between groups were assessed by the log-rank test. For all methods, the level of significance was set at p < 0.05. Multivariate analysis of the risk of HCC was carried out using the Cox proportional hazard model. Statistical analyses were performed using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences software version 11.0 (SPSS, Chicago, IL, USA). In Study 1, age, sex, platelet count, and total bilirubin levels were identified as independent factors for the development of HCC; therefore, these factors were selected for the propensity-matched control study (Study 2) in which 59 patients from the PegIFNα-2a group were included.

Results

Study 1

We analyzed the factors involved in the development of HCC in patients who received 90 μg PegIFNα-2a weekly or biweekly for more than a year. The incidence of HCC did not differ significantly between the groups treated with PegIFNα-2a weekly and biweekly (34 of 512 vs. 15 of 82, respectively). As shown in Table 2, univariate analysis revealed statistically significant differences in the pretreatment parameters including age, sex, fibrosis of the liver, platelet count, albumin level, and total bilirubin, between patients who developed HCC and those who did not. Endoscopy was carried out in 375 patients, and esophageal varices were noted in 31 of them. The incidence of HCC was higher in patients with esophageal varices than in those without varices [29.0 % (9 of 31) vs. 6.4 % (22 of 344)]. Assessment of on-treatment factors by univariate analysis revealed statistically significant differences in serum ALT, AFP, and HCV RNA levels 24 weeks after the start of PegIFNα-2a maintenance treatment (Table 2).

Multivariate analysis including pretreatment parameters revealed that age, sex, fibrosis of the liver, platelet count, and total bilirubin were independent risk factors for HCC development (Table 3). Multivariate analysis including on-treatment parameters identified ALT levels of ≥41 IU/L and AFP levels of ≥10 ng/L 24 weeks after the start of the PegIFNα-2a therapy as independent risk factors for HCC development (Table 3).
Table 3

Independent risk factors for HCC development in patients treated with 90 μg PegIFNα-2a weekly or bi-weekly, evaluated by multivariate analysis (logistic regression analysis)

 

Multivariate analysis

Odds ratio

95 % Confidence interval (CI)

p

Age (years) (every 5 years)

2.24

1.76–9.33

<0.005

Sex (male/female)

3.16

1.56–10.7

<0.005

Fibrosis (F3, 4/F0, 1, 2)

1.69

1.18–5.2

<0.01

Platelet count (<120 × 103/μL vs. ≥120 × 103/μL)

3.24

1.44–27.6

<0.01

Total bilirubin (mg/dL)

1.59

1.09–2.58

<0.05

ALT (at 24 weeks) (≥41 vs. <40 IU/L)

2.49

1.51–8.28

<0.05

AFP (at 24 weeks) (≥10 vs. <10 ng/L)

3.78

1.92–11.8

<0.01

The incidence of HCC was significantly lower in patients with ALT levels of ≤40 IU/L than in those with ALT levels of ≥41 IU/L 24 weeks after the start of observation (Fig. 2). The incidence of HCC was also significantly lower in patients with AFP concentrations of <10 ng/mL at 24 weeks after the start of observation than in those with AFP concentrations of ≥10 ng/mL (Fig. 3). The dose of PegIFNα-2a was reduced to 45 μg in 16 patients because of neutropenia and thrombocytopenia. In addition, PegIFNα-2a was discontinued in 18 patients because of adverse events, including depression (7 patients), interstitial pneumonitis (3 patients), thrombocytopenia (3 patients), neutropenia (1 patient), itching (1 patient), and ascites (3 patients). No statistically significant differences were found between the patients with reduced dosage or treatment interruption and those without treatment modifications with respect to overall survival, HCC incidence, ascites formation, variceal bleeding, hepatic encephalopathy, and 2-point increases in the Child-Pugh score. No patients underwent liver transplantation.
Fig. 2

Comparison of HCC rates in patients administered with PegIFNα-2a (n = 594) with respect to alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels 24 weeks after the start of therapy. Black line patients with ALT ≥41 IU/L in the first 24 weeks, gray line patients with ALT ≤40 IU/L in the first 24 weeks

Fig. 3

Comparison of HCC rates in patients administered PegIFNα-2a (n = 594) with respect to alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) levels in the first 24 weeks after the start of therapy. Black line patients with AFP ≥10 ng/mL at 24 weeks, gray line patients with AFP <10 ng/mL at 24 weeks

Study 2

We compared the incidence of HCC between 59 patients in the control group and the same number of patients in the PegIFNα-2a group using the matched-pair test. The backgrounds of the patients are shown in Table 4. The PegIFNα-2a group had higher rates of advanced fibrosis (F3 and F4) and active inflammation (A2 and A3). No other differences were found between the two groups, except for the white blood cell count (Table 4).
Table 4

Backgrounds of the patients in the propensity-matched control study (PegIFNα-2a group, n = 59; control group, n = 59)

 

PegIFNα-2a group (n = 59)

Control group (n = 59)

p value

Age (years)

60.5 ± 13.0

63.3 ± 10.5

n.s.

Gender (male/female)

24/35

25/34

n.s.

BMI

22.9 ± 3.6

22.9 ± 3.4

n.s.

Genotype (1/2)

49/10

46/13

n.s.

History of excess alcohol consumption (60 g/day; yes/no)

10/49

4/55

n.s.

Fibrosis (F0, 1, 2/F3, 4)

37/22

43/16

<0.05

Development of HCC (F0–2/F3, 4)

1/1

1/7

n.s.

Inflammatory activity (A0,1/A2, 3)

19/40

30/29

<0.05

Diabetes mellitus (no/yes)

57/2

56/3

n.s.

LDL cholesterol (mg/dL)

95.3 ± 23.8

117.0 ± 4.2

n.s.

White blood cell count (/mm3)

4,260 ± 1,239

5,193 ± 2,078

<0.05

Red blood cell count (×10−4/μL)

430 ± 57.8

441 ± 44.9

n.s.

Hemoglobin (g/dL)

13.6 ± 1.5

13.6 ± 1.9

n.s.

Platelet count (×10−3/μL)

14.5 ± 5.7

15.8 ± 5.7

n.s.

Albumin (g/dL)

4.1 ± 0.5

4.1 ± 0.4

n.s.

Total bilirubin (mg/dL)

0.7 ± 0.5

0.9 ± 0.7

n.s.

AST (IU/L)

58.3 ± 47.7

49.7 ± 26.6

n.s.

ALT (IU/L)

63.6 ± 68.7

58.0 ± 39.2

n.s.

Gamma-GTP (IU/L)

78.3 ± 81.3

55.3 ± 75.1

n.s.

Baseline alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) (ng/L)

7.2 (4.3–14.2)

7.7 (3.9–13.8)

n.s.

Baseline HCV RNA level (KIU/mL)

1,230 (24–3,870)

1,024 (38–3,110)

n.s.

Development of HCC was observed in 2 patients in the PegIFNα-2a group and 8 in the control group. The incidence of HCC was compared between the two groups, using the Kaplan–Meier method. The incidence of HCC in the PegIFNα-2a group was significantly lower than that in the control group (log-rank test, p = 0.0187; Fig. 4). Among the patients with advanced fibrosis of the liver (F3 and F4), those in the PegIFNα-2a group had a lower incidence of HCC than those in the control group. The independent risk factors for the development of HCC were analyzed using the stepwise Cox proportional hazard model. Only PegIFNα-2a administration and age were identified as independent risk factors for the development of HCC (Table 5).
Fig. 4

Comparison of HCC rates between the long-term PegIFNα-2a administration group (n = 59) and non-administration group (n = 59) in the propensity-matched control study (Kaplan–Meier log-rank test, p = 0.019)

Table 5

Risk factors for HCC in the propensity-matched control study (Cox proportional hazard model)

Variables

Risk ratio

95 % CI

p value

PegIFN versus control

0.17

0.03–0.75

<0.05

Age (every 1 year)

1.12

1.02–1.25

<0.05

Fibrosis (F3, 4 vs. F0, 1, 2)

1.70

0.75–4.16

n.s.

Platelet count (every 10 × 103/μL)

0.89

0.73–1.09

n.s.

Albumin (every 1.0 g/dL)

0.80

0.10–6.68

n.s.

On-treatment AFP (<10 vs. ≥10 ng/L)

4.07

0.59–40.12

n.s.

Discussion

The number of HCC cases resulting from HCV infection continues to increase worldwide [19]. To date, IFN therapy is the most effective preventive measure against HCC in patients with chronic hepatitis C; furthermore, the incidence of HCC is reduced in patients who achieve an SVR to IFN [6, 7, 8, 9] Therefore, achieving an SVR is the most effective approach for reducing the risk of developing HCC. In Japan, the incidence of HCC is elevated in older patients with hepatitis C. Corroborating this finding, the results of a Japanese study show a higher risk of HCC in patients aged 65 years and more [10]. Therefore, prevention of HCC in aged patients is an important challenge.

In the present multicenter, cooperative, retrospective study conducted in Japan, the incidence of HCC was reduced in patients who received 90 μg PegIFNα-2a weekly or biweekly and had AFP values of <10 ng/mL and ALT values of ≤40 IU/L 24 weeks after the start of the treatment. The results of the matched case–control study of the PegIFNα-2a group and the non-IFN control group show that the incidence of HCC was significantly lower in the PegIFNα-2a group than in the control group, especially in patients with advanced fibrosis of the liver (F3 and F4). However, there could have been a selection bias between the PegIFNα-2a group and the control group (patients who did not agree to receive IFN treatment), because this was a retrospective and non-randomized study. However, concordant with the findings of the HALT-C study [14], the present results show that PegIFNα-2a inhibits the development of HCC in patients with advanced fibrosis of the liver.

Recent studies show that polymorphisms in the host IL28B gene are important factors in the response to PegIFNα and ribavirin combination therapy [20, 21]. However, the mechanism of IL28B involvement in the response to PegIFNα and ribavirin has not been elucidated completely. A recent report has shown that IL28B is a significant factor in the development of HCC as well as in the response to IFN therapy [22]. Further studies are warranted to analyze the relationship between IL28B and inhibition of the development of HCC by PegIFNα in chronic hepatitis C.

Risk factors for the development of HCC have been discussed previously. Increased intrahepatic fat is involved in the development of HCC in chronic hepatitis C patients [23, 24]. In addition, diabetes-associated fat disorder [25, 26], hepatic iron overload [27], advanced fibrosis, older age, and fatty deposits in the liver are risk factors for HCC development [4]. Therefore, it is important to establish strategies to mitigate these risk factors to prevent the development of HCC and thus improve the outcomes of hepatitis C patients.

IFN therapy after HCC treatment is reported to inhibit the recurrence of tumors [28, 29], and a meta-analysis has revealed a trend toward inhibition of the recurrence of HCC [30, 31]. The prevention of HCC is an important issue that needs to be addressed to improve the survival of chronic hepatitis C patients. The findings of the present study and the HALT-C trial [14] indicate the effectiveness of long-term administration of maintenance IFN for preventing the development of HCC in chronic hepatitis C patients without an SVR. Improvement in ALT levels is also known to be an important predictor for the prevention of HCC [32]. A low AFP value during IFN administration is also recognized as a significant indicator of a lower risk of HCC [33, 34]. Recently, Osaki et al. [35] reported that a decrease of serum AFP during treatment with IFN was associated with a reduced incidence of HCC. Taking these findings and our own together, we conclude that maintenance administration of low-dose PegIFNα-2a weekly or biweekly to non-SVR patients with chronic hepatitis C decreases the incidence of HCC, especially in patients whose serum ALT and AFP levels are within the normal range 24 weeks after the start of treatment. The preventive effects of IFN against the development of HCC without elimination of the virus may be associated with its anti-carcinogenic effects [16, 35]; however, the precise mechanism should be investigated.

The limitations of the present study are that it is retrospective and multicentric; therefore, potentially there may have been a selection bias. However, the reduction of the rate of development of HCC by maintenance administration of PegIFNα-2a in the patients in whom serum ALT and AFP levels were within the normal ranges 24 weeks after the start of treatment may be attributable to the anticarcinogenic effects of IFN without elimination of the virus.

Conclusion

The incidence of HCC was lower in non-SVR patients with chronic hepatitis C who were administered with maintenance low-dose PegIFNα-2a; especially in those whose serum ALT and AFP levels were within the normal ranges 24 weeks after the start of treatment.

Notes

Acknowledgments

This study was supported by a Grant-in-Aid from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Labor.

Conflict of interest

Namiki Izumi received lecture fees from Chugai Co. and MSD Co. in 2011.

Open Access

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and the source are credited.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Namiki Izumi
    • 1
  • Yasuhiro Asahina
    • 1
  • Masayuki Kurosaki
    • 1
  • Gotaro Yamada
    • 2
  • Tsutomu Kawai
    • 3
  • Eiji Kajiwara
    • 4
  • Yukishige Okamura
    • 5
  • Takayuki Takeuchi
    • 6
  • Osamu Yokosuka
    • 7
  • Kazuya Kariyama
    • 8
  • Joji Toyoda
    • 9
  • Mie Inao
    • 10
  • Eiji Tanaka
    • 11
  • Hisataka Moriwaki
    • 12
  • Hiroshi Adachi
    • 13
  • Shinji Katsushima
    • 14
  • Masatoshi Kudo
    • 15
  • Kouichi Takaguchi
    • 16
  • Yoichi Hiasa
    • 17
  • Kazuaki Chayama
    • 18
  • Hiroshi Yatsuhashi
    • 19
  • Makoto Oketani
    • 20
  • Hiromitsu Kumada
    • 21
  1. 1.Department of Gastroenterology and HepatologyMusashino Red-Cross HospitalMusashinoJapan
  2. 2.Department of Internal MedicineKawasaki Hospital of Kawasaki Medical UniversityOkayamaJapan
  3. 3.Department of GastroenterologyKanbara General HospitalFujiJapan
  4. 4.Department of GastroenterologyShinnittetsu Yahata Memorial HospitalKitakyushuJapan
  5. 5.Department of GastroenterologySano Kousei HospitalKitakyushuJapan
  6. 6.Department of GastroenterologyNotogawa HospitalHigashioumiJapan
  7. 7.Department of Gastroenterology and HepatologyChiba UniversityChibaJapan
  8. 8.Department of HepatologyOkayama Citizens’ HospitalOkayamaJapan
  9. 9.Department of Gastroenterology and HepatologySapporo Kousei HospitalSapporoJapan
  10. 10.Department of Gastroenterology and HepatologySaitama Medical UniversityMoroyamaJapan
  11. 11.Second Department of Internal MedicineShinshu UniversityMatsumotoJapan
  12. 12.Department of Gastroenterology and HepatologyGifu UniversityGifuJapan
  13. 13.Department of HepatologyTonami General HospitalTonamiJapan
  14. 14.Department of GastroenterologyKyoto Medical CenterKyotoJapan
  15. 15.Department of Gastroenterology and HepatologyKinki UniversityHigashiosakaJapan
  16. 16.Department of GastroenterologyKagawa Central HospitalTakamatsuJapan
  17. 17.Department of Gastroenterology and HepatologyEhime UniversityMatsuyamaJapan
  18. 18.Department of Gastroenterology and HepatologyHiroshima UniversityHiroshimaJapan
  19. 19.Department of Gastroenterology and HepatologyNagasaki Medical CenterNagasakiJapan
  20. 20.Department of Gastroenterology and HepatologyKagoshima UniversityKagoshimaJapan
  21. 21.Department of HepatologyToranomon HospitalTokyoJapan

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