Semin Liver Dis 2010; 30(1): 099-106
DOI: 10.1055/s-0030-1247136

© Thieme Medical Publishers

A 70-Year-Old Woman with 10 Years of Markedly Elevated Alpha-Fetoprotein Measurements

Sherry X. Hsu1 , Abby B. Siegel2 , Paul D. Berk3
  • 1Department of Hematology and Oncology, New York, New York
  • 2Hepatobiliary Oncology Unit, Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation, New York, New York
  • 3Division of Digestive and Liver Diseases, Department of Medicine, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, New York
Further Information

Publication History

Publication Date:
19 February 2010 (online)


The incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is growing dramatically in the Western world. It is currently the fifth most common cancer worldwide, and the third most common cause of death from cancer. Studies clearly demonstrate that surveillance programs can increase the proportion of HCCs that are detected at an early stage, and improved therapeutic modalities, applied to early stage HCCs, improve cure rates and duration of survival in noncurable cases. What constitutes appropriate surveillance remains an unresolved issue. Measurements of serum α-fetoprotein and imaging, especially with ultrasound, are the most widely used elements in surveillance programs. The authors present a 70-year-old woman with chronic hepatitis C in whom elevated α-fetoprotein levels were first detected 10 years ago, reaching levels of >700 ng/mL. Frequent imaging studies by ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have found only one lesion, which does not have radiographic features strongly suggestive of HCC. This lesion has been seen only intermittently, and when seen has shown no growth over an 8-year period. Segmental ablation did not alter the serum α-fetoprotein levels. The authors believe the patient does not have HCC. Alpha-fetoprotein as a screening test for HCC is known to lead to false-negative results. This case, and a review of the literature, emphasize that it is also subject to false-positives. In addition, interpretation of borderline imaging studies such as occurred in this case often causes controversy among the physicians involved. This case illustrates yet again the deficiencies of α-fetoprotein as a surveillance tool for HCC. It also highlights the need for more emphasis on developing new and improved tools for HCC surveillance if improved therapeutic modalities are to be exploited to the fullest.


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Paul D BerkM.D. F.A.C.P. 

Division of Digestive and Liver Diseases, Columbia University Medical Center

Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, 1150 Saint Nicholas Avenue, Room 412, New York, NY 10032