Evaluating screening approaches for hepatocellular carcinoma in a cohort of HCV related cirrhosis patients from the Veteran's Affairs Health Care System.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) has limited treatment options in patients with advanced stage disease and early detection of HCC through surveillance programs is a key component towards reducing mortality. The current practice guidelines recommend that high-risk cirrhosis patients are screened every six months with ultrasonography but these are done in local hospitals with variable quality leading to disagreement about the benefit of HCC surveillance. The well-established diagnostic biomarker α-Fetoprotein (AFP) is used widely in screening but the reported performance varies widely across studies. We evaluate two biomarker screening approaches, a six-month risk prediction model and a parametric empirical Bayes (PEB) algorithm, in terms of their ability to improve the likelihood of early detection of HCC compared to current AFP alone when applied prospectively in a future study.

We used electronic medical records from the Department of Veterans Affairs Hepatitis C Clinical Case Registry to construct our analysis cohort, which consists of serial AFP tests in 11,222 cirrhosis control patients and 902 HCC cases prior to their HCC diagnosis. The six-month risk prediction model incorporates routinely measured laboratory tests, age, the rate of change in AFP over the past year with the current AFP. The PEB algorithm incorporates prior AFP screening values to identify patients with a significant elevated level of AFP at their current screen. We split the analysis cohort into independent training and validation datasets. All model fitting and parameter estimation was performed using the training data and the algorithm performance was assessed by applying each approach to patients in the validation dataset.

When the screening-level false positive rate was set at 10%, the patient-level true positive rate using current AFP alone was 53.88% while the patient-level true positive rate for the six-month risk prediction model was 58.09% (4.21% increase) and PEB approach was 63.64% (9.76% increase). Both screening approaches identify a greater proportion of HCC cases earlier than using AFP alone.

The two approaches show greater potential to improve early detection of HCC compared to using the current AFP only and are worthy of further study.

  • Davila JA
  • El-Serag HB
  • Feng Z
  • Kanwal F
  • Richardson P
  • Tayob N
  • White DL
  • Yu X
PubMed ID
Appears In
BMC Med Res Methodol, 2018, 18 (1)