Liver cancer cells.

Cells from the most common type of liver cancer. Analysis of such cells’ proteins and genes has revealed metabolic peculiarities. Credit: Steve Gschmeissner/SPL

Cancer

Liver tumours’ odd metabolisms might be their weak spot

People with a certain type of liver cancer die sooner if they have higher levels of some metabolic proteins.

The way to beat liver tumours caused by a common virus might be to target their peculiar metabolisms, according to a detailed analysis of the genes and proteins in such tumours.

Liver cancer kills 788,000 people worldwide each year. More than 40% of those deaths are attributed to liver tumours caused by hepatitis B virus (HBV).

Jia Fan at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and his colleagues studied tumour tissue and non-cancerous liver tissue from 159 people with HBV-related liver cancer. The team found signs that tumour metabolism differs from that of normal tissue. Tumours contained chemical modifications to some sugar-processing enzymes, and the scientists could promote tumour growth in mice by seeding the animals with human cells that produce one of those modified enzymes.

High levels of two proteins involved in metabolism were associated with poorer survival in the original 159 study participants and in another 243 participants with liver cancer. The authors say that therapies that target tumour metabolism — one of the most important predictors of disease course — hold promise.