Purpose: Non-invasive biomarkers for diagnosing and prognosing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) are urgently needed. Cirrhosis is present in 80-90% of HCC patients. Cirrhosis is characterized by deposition and cross-linking of collagens that have crucial roles in HCC initiation and progression. We evaluated circulating cross-linked pro-peptides of type III collagen (PC3X) as a diagnostic and prognostic biomarker for HCC.

Patients and methods: PC3X was measured by ELISA in plasma from patients with HCC (n=79), cirrhosis (n=86), non-cirrhotic hepatitis-B infection (n=74) and from healthy controls (n=44). PC3X was compared to the liver fibrosis marker PRO-C3 and the HCC tumor-cell derived marker alpha-fetoprotein (AFP). Diagnostic and prognostic potential was evaluated by AUROC and by calculating hazard ratios (HR) for progression-free survival (PFS) and overall survival (OS).

Results: PC3X, PRO-C3 and AFP were significantly elevated in patients with HCC compared to other liver diseases and healthy controls (p=0.0002, p<0.0001). In patients with normal AFP (<20 IU/mL), PC3X and PRO-C3 separated HCC from cirrhosis with an AUROC of 0.72 and 0.68, respectively. High PC3X and AFP predicted for poor PFS (HRPC3X=1.80, p=0.032; HRAFP=1.70, p=0.031) and OS (HRPC3X=2.12, p=0.024; HRAFP=2.55; p=0.003), whereas PRO-C3 did not (PFS: HR=1.19, p=0.059 and OS: HR=1.12, p=0.324). PC3X was independent of AFP (PFS: HR=1.74, p=0.045 and OS: HR=2.21, p=0.018) and combining the two improved prognostic value (PFS: HR=2.66, p=0.004 and OS: HR=5.86, p<0.0001).

Conclusion: PC3X is associated with HCC independent of AFP and provides diagnostic and prognostic value for HCC patients. If validated, this suggests that PC3X has biomarker potential for HCC.

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