The predominant type of malignant tumour of the liver (ICD-9 155) is hepatocellular carcinoma (hepatoma; HCC), i.e., a malignant tumour of the liver cells. Cholangiocarcinomas are tumours of the intrahepatic bile ducts. They represent some 10% of liver cancers in the US but may account for up to 60% elsewhere, such as in north-eastern Thai populations (IARC 1990). Angiosarcomas of the liver are very rare and very aggressive tumours, occurring mostly in men. Hepatoblastomas, a rare embryonal cancer, occur in early life, and have little geographic or ethnic variation.
The prognosis for HCC depends on the size of the tumour and on the extent of cirrhosis, metastases, lymph node involvement, vascular invasion and presence/absence of a capsule. They tend to relapse after resection. Small HCCs are resectable, with a five-year survival of 40-70%. Liver transplantation results in about 20% survival after two years for patients with advanced HCC. For patients with less advanced HCC, the prognosis after transplantation is better. For hepatoblastomas, complete resection is possible in 50-70% of the children. Cure rates after resection range from 30-70%. Chemotherapy can be used both pre- and postoperatively. Liver transplantation may be indicated for unresectable hepatoblastomas.
Cholangiocarcinomas are multifocal in more than 40% of the patients at the time of diagnosis. Lymph node metastases occur in 30-50% of these cases. The response rates to chemotherapy vary widely, but usually are less than 20% successful. Surgical resection is possible in only a few patients. Radiation therapy has been used as the primary treatment or adjuvant therapy, and may improve survival in patients who have not undergone a complete resection. Five-year survival rates are less than 20%. Angiosarcoma patients usually present distant metastases. Resection, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and liver transplantation are, in most cases, unsuccessful. Most patients die within six months of diagnosis (Lotze, Flickinger and Carr 1993).
An estimated 315,000 new cases of liver cancer occurred globally in 1985, with a clear absolute and relative preponderance in populations of developing countries, except in Latin America (IARC 1994a; Parkin, Pisani and Ferlay 1993). The average annual incidence of liver cancer shows considerable variation across cancer registries worldwide. During the 1980s, average annual incidence ranged from 0.8 in men and 0.2 in women in Maastricht, The Netherlands, to 90.0 in men and 38.3 in women in Khon Kaen, Thailand, per 100,000 of population, standardized to the standard world population. China, Japan, East Asia, and Africa represented high rates, while Latin and North American, European, and Oceanian rates were lower, except for New Zealand Maoris (IARC 1992). The geographic distribution of liver cancer is correlated with the distribution of the prevalence of chronic carriers of hepatitis B surface antigen and also with the distribution of local levels of aflatoxin contamination of foodstuffs (IARC 1990). Male-to-female ratios in incidence are usually between 1 and 3, but may be higher in high-risk populations.
Statistics on the mortality and incidence of liver cancer by social class indicate a tendency of excess risk to concentrate in the lower socio-economic strata, but this gradient is not observed in all populations.
The established risk factors for primary liver cancer in humans include aflatoxin-contaminated food, chronic infection with hepatitis B virus (IARC 1994b), chronic infection with hepatitis C virus (IARC 1994b), and heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages (IARC 1988). HBV is responsible for an estimated 50-90% of hepatocellular carcinoma incidence in high-risk populations, and for 1-10% in low-risk populations. Oral contraceptives are a further suspected factor. The evidence implicating tobacco smoking in the aetiology of liver cancer is insufficient (Higginson, Muir and Munoz 1992).
The substantial geographical variation in the incidence of liver cancer suggests that a high proportion of liver cancers might be preventable. The preventive measures include HBV vaccination (estimated potential theoretical reduction in incidence is roughly 70% in endemic areas), reduction of contamination of food by mycotoxins (40% reduction in endemic areas), improved methods of harvesting, dry storing of crops, and reduction of consumption of alcoholic beverages (15% reduction in Western countries; IARC 1990).
Liver cancer excesses have been reported in a number of occupational and industrial groups in different countries. Some of the positive associations are readily explained by workplace exposures such as the increased risk of liver angiosarcoma in vinyl chloride workers (see below). For other high-risk jobs, such as metal work, construction painting, and animal feed processing, the connection with workplace exposures is not firmly established and is not found in all studies, but could well exist. For others, such as service workers, police officers, guards, and governmental workers, direct workplace carcinogens may not explain the excess. Cancer data for farmers do not provide many clues for occupational aetiologies in liver cancer. In a review of 13 studies involving 510 cases or deaths of liver cancer among farmers (Blair et al. 1992), a slight deficit (aggregated risk ratio 0.89; 95% confidence interval 0.81-0.97) was observed.
Some of the clues provided by industry- or job-specific epidemiological studies do suggest that occupational exposures may have a role in the induction of liver cancer. Minimization of certain occupational exposures therefore would be instrumental in the prevention of liver cancer in occupationally exposed populations. As a classical example, occupational exposure to vinyl chloride has been shown to cause angiosarcoma of the liver, a rare form of liver cancer (IARC 1987). As a result, vinyl chloride exposure has been regulated in a large number of countries. There is increasing evidence that chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents may cause liver cancer. Aflatoxins, chlorophenols, ethylene glycol, tin compounds, insecticides and some other agents have been associated with the risk of liver cancer in epidemiological studies. Numerous chemical agents occurring in occupational settings have caused liver cancer in animals and may therefore be suspected of being liver carcinogens in humans. Such agents include aflatoxins, aromatic amines, azo dyes, benzidine-based dyes, 1,2-dibromoethane, butadiene, carbon tetrachloride, chlorobenzenes, chloroform, chlorophenols, diethylhexyl phthalate, 1,2-dichloroethane, hydrazine, methylene chloride, N-nitrosoamines, a number of organochlorine pesticides, perchloroethylene, polychlorinated biphenyls and toxaphene.