Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the third most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide, and the incidence of this fatal disease is still on rise. The majority of HCCs emerge in the background of a chronic liver disease, such as chronic hepatitis and liver cirrhosis. The current understanding is that majority of HCCs evolve as a consequence of chronic inflammation and due to the presence of infection with hepatitis viruses. These underlying pathogenic stimuli subsequently induce a spectrum of genetic and epigenetic alterations in several cancer-related genes, which are involved in cell-cycle regulation, cell growth and adhesion. Such widespread genomic alterations cause disruption of normal cellular signaling and finally lead to the acquisition of a malignant phenotype in HCC. In general, the type of gene alterations, such as point mutations, deletion of chromosomal regions and abnormal methylation of gene promoters differ according to the individual targeted gene. In HCC, incidence of genetic alterations is relatively rare and is limited to a subset of few cancer-specific genes, such as the tumor suppressor p53, RB genes and oncogenes such as the CTNNB1. In contrast, epigenetic changes that involve aberrant methylation of genes and other post-transcriptional histone modifications occur far more frequently, and some of these epigenetic alterations are now being exploited for the development of molecular diagnostic signatures for HCC. In addition, recent findings of unique microRNA expression profiles also provide an evidence for the existence of novel mechanisms for gene expression regulation in HCC. In this review article, we will review the current state of knowledge on the activation of various oncogenic pathways and the inactivation of tumor suppressor pathways in HCC that result in the disruption of cancer-related gene function. In addition, we will specifically emphasize the clinical implication of some of these genetic and epigenetic alterations in the management of hepatocarcinogenesis.
Keywords: Oncogenic pathway, hepatocellular carcinoma, DNA methylation, mutation, oncogene, tumor suppressor gene, CTNNB1, Wnt/B-catenin pathway, post-transcriptional modifications, apoptosis
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