Researchers in breakthrough on liver tumours

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 July, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong researchers have identified a type of cell in liver tumours that can develop resistance to chemotherapy, in a breakthrough they hope will lead to much higher survival rates among sufferers of the city's fourth most prevalent cancer.

The research team at the University of Hong Kong hopes to develop new drugs to treat liver cancer, which will reduce the spread of tumours and extend the patient's life.

Professor Irene Ng Oi-lin and Dr Terence Lee Kin-wah, from the university's pathology department in the medicine faculty, said patients who showed a high level of the cancer stem cells CD24+ had a significantly lower rate of survival and a higher risk of developing a new tumour after surgery or treatment.

'In the long term, the study should facilitate the development of a safe, effective and targeted treatment that can be used in combination with chemotherapy to completely eradicate this deadly disease,' Lee said.

Liver cancer is the fourth most common cancer in Hong Kong, with around 1,700 new cases a year. In 2008, it claimed about 1,500 lives. In the region, hepatitis B is the leading cause of the disease, as 10 per cent of the population carry the virus.

Treating liver cancer has always been challenging because few patients can be treated by organ transplants. Most of the time the tumour is already too advanced and healthy liver grafts are in short supply. Chemotherapy, targeting rapidly developing cancerous cells in the tumour, accounts for a quarter of liver cancer treatments.

In their research, the team isolated and characterised the CD24+ liver cancer stem cells from samples by dissociating the tumour bulk and injecting CD24+ and CD24- biomarkers into mice. After two months, it was found that only CD24+ cells could initiate tumours.

After chemotherapy, CD24+ liver cancer showed a significantly lower number of dead cancerous cells than CD24- cancer.

The study argues that 'liver cancer patients whose tumours had high CD24+ expression had much shorter duration of survival (6.6 months) when compared to patients whose tumours had low expression of CD24+ (42 months)'.

However, the breakthrough only goes so far. Ng stressed that the breakthrough would enable new treatment modalities and 'hopefully damp down recurrence'.

'It will prolong the patient's life by several months,' she said.


The number of new liver cancer cases registered a year

- As of December 31, 2010, 91 were waiting for a liver transplant