In this study, the younger patients with HCC who underwent hepatectomy were more likely than the older patients to be HBV-positive, to have large tumors with portal invasion and to have high AFP, although they also retained better liver function than the older patients. Despite the significant difference in tumor progression, neither OS nor RFS were significantly different between the two groups, although recurrence tended to occur earlier in the younger patients. Multivariate analysis showed HCV-Ab-positive status and serum albumin levels of <4.0 g/l to be independent predictive factors for OS, and multiple tumors and vp2, 3, 4 were independent predictive factors for RFS in the younger patients. Therefore, young patients with hepatocellular carcinoma should be aggressively treated with hepatectomy due to their good pre-surgical liver function.
In the younger group of patients, HCV-Ab-positive status and low serum albumin levels were the liver-function-related factors that were found to be significantly unfavorable in terms of OS, while multiple tumors and vp2, 3, 4 were the tumor-related factors that were significantly unfavorable in terms of RFS; moreover, these findings were obtained by both univariate and multivariate analyses. Although most of the younger patients had advanced tumors, no differences were found between the younger and older patients in terms of OS. These results indicate that aggressive and curative liver resection should be performed for young patients with HCC, because most young patients retain good pre-surgical liver function.
The definition of who should be classified as a “young patient” with HCC remains controversial. In the literature, the definition of a young patient with HCC has tended to be a patient aged 40 years or younger[4, 8, 10–12, 14]. Cases of HCC in such patients are comparatively rare, for example, HCC occurs in only 0.6 to 2.7% of this age group in Japanese reports[12–14]. In other countries, the reported rates of HCC in this age range are as follows: 8.6% (40 years and younger) in Singapore, 10.9% (under 40 years) in Taiwan and 6.5% (40 years and younger) in Hong Kong. Thus most of the existing reports have been from Asia, and they show a difference in frequency among regions. There appear to be many young patients in Asia with HCC who are HBV-positive; HBV is an underlying disease of HCC in young patients, and many carriers live in Asia.
Many young patients with HCC have HBs-Ag, that is, up to 71.4 to 100%[3–5, 7–11, 14]. Meanwhile, cases of HCV-Ab-positivity plus HCC among younger patients are reported at rates of 0 to 10%[4, 5, 7–10, 12, 14], which is much lower than the range for older patients. Rates of Child-Pugh A are 69.1 to 92.3% among younger patients[4–6, 8–12], which is higher than the range in older patients. It has been reported that histological hepatitis or cirrhosis of non-cancerous liver is significantly less common in younger hepatectomy patients than in older hepatectomy patients among cases with HCC[3, 4, 12]. Though HCC is generally found by medical examination or follow-up of liver function, in most young patients, HCC is found by symptoms such as pain and/or palpation of an abdominal mass[11, 14, 18, 19]. Accordingly, members of the younger patient group in this study had larger tumors than the older patient group.
This study revealed that the rate of cases related to HBV was 93.5%, and the rate of HBs-Ag-positive cases was 87.0%. The MST of the younger group was 40 months, and the five-year OS rate was 49.6%. These results did not differ significantly from the previously reported MST and five-year OS rates of 27.8 to 52.5 months and 30.5 to 54.8%, respectively, among cases of liver resection for HCC across all ages[20, 21]. Therefore, it appears likely that aggressive and curative liver resection contributes to prolonged prognosis.
In regard to tumor factors, several studies have reported that more young than old patients have high AFP levels, that is, the rates of cases in which AFP is equal to or exceeds a value of 400 ng/ml range from 52.6 to 82.0%[3, 7, 9–11, 14], and rates for an AFP of ≥10,000 ng/ml range from 31.6 to 60.0%[3, 10, 11, 14]. In addition, younger patients tend to have larger tumors than older patients, with the maximum diameter of tumors being 6.9 to 12.7 cm in younger patients[3, 4, 7, 10, 12, 14]. Cases showing portal invasion count for 45.0 to 100%[10–12, 14] of younger HCC patients. In the present study, the younger patient group had higher AFP levels and larger tumors, was more likely to have portal invasion and showed better liver function than the older group, as has been reported elsewhere[3, 7, 10–12, 14]. It has also been reported that cases with high AFP levels have a poor prognosis due to a correlation between tumor size and AFP.
As regards prognostic factors, Chen et al. reported that hepatectomy was a significant favorable prognostic factor among HCC patients aged 40 years and younger. As regards other prognostic factors, AFP[8, 11], portal invasion[8, 11] and reserved liver function[8, 11, 12] have been reported, although these remain controversial. In this study, prognostic factors related to OS were HCV-Ab-positive status and low serum albumin levels, and prognostic factors related to RFS were the number of tumors and vp2, 3, 4. It has been suggested that liver function preservation primarily influences survival, and tumor factors influence recurrence. Furthermore, while the time to recurrence in the younger patients was shorter than that in the older patients, the RFS of the younger group tended to overtake that of the older group in the long term. The recurrence rate was 71%, and the site of recurrence was almost always the liver. This rate was comparable to those of other reports, which ranged from 60.2 to 78.2% across all ages. The results to date suggest that aggressive treatments, including re-hepatectomy for recurrence, contribute to an improvement in the long-term prognosis.
Moreover, in order to improve prognosis, we should take care to perform aggressive resections, and should also make note of cases with a background of potentially liver-affecting hepatitis B. Chuma et al. reported that the quantity of HBV-DNA and non-treatment for HBV were risk factors for a recurrence of HCC. Li et al. reported that one-year and two-year RFS rates were 23.3% vs. 8.3%, and 2.3% vs. 0%, respectively, in a treatment group receiving lamivudine for HCC due to concurrent hepatitis B vs. a control group. Therefore, viral treatments in combination with cancer treatments, including resection, are important to consider.
There have been few reports on liver transplantation for young patients with HCC. The reason for this lack of information is likely to be that younger patients have relatively larger tumors and, therefore, they tend to have tumors exceeding the Milan criteria. Ismail et al. reported that the outcomes of liver transplantation were better than those of liver resection among patients with HCC who were aged 2 to 27 years, namely, the OS rates were 72% vs. 40%, and the RFS rates were 91% vs. 30%. It was also reported that primary liver transplantation for children with HCC without extrahepatic lesions has a good outcome, even if the tumors exceed the Milan criteria. An accumulation of future cases is expected.
As noted above, many young HCC patients present with advanced tumors and unfavorable prognostic factors. In a study on 16 patients who received liver transplantation for HCC and who had low differentiation and vascular invasion beyond the Milan criteria, Saab et al. reported that those receiving sorafenib (n = 8) had one-year OS rates and RFS rates of 87.5% and 85.7%, versus 62.5% and 57.1% for the control group (n = 8). It is expected that supportive treatment with molecular target medicine after liver resection or transplantation could contribute to a prolonged prognosis.