Research Overview

Liver cancer remains one of the deadliest cancers and claims the lives of 1,645 people worldwide each day. Many are Asians with chronic hepatitis B. Early diagnosis is the best way to improve one's chances of surviving liver cancer, but the current screening blood test can miss 50 percent of the cancers. In fact, there is no effective chemotherapy to treat those who are diagnosed in the later stages of liver cancer. Although research and early detection has led to significant improvement in the prognosis of many cancers, liver cancer—which largely affects the Asian and African populations—has received little federal research funding. 

The Asian Liver Center's comprehensive liver cancer research program is committed to finding a cure for liver cancer through novel approaches toward increasing the efficacy of diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of liver cancer. The Asian Liver Center spearheaded studies that led to the publication in 2002-03 of the first major genomic analysis of liver and stomach cancers. These important studies have provided us with a rich foundation of information that will guide future research.

Genomics Research

The Asian Liver Center focuses on cancer genomic research using cutting-edge gene chip technology to develop diagnostic, prognostic, and treatment tools for liver cancer. Gene chip technology, first pioneered at Stanford University, is capable of studying the expression of tens of thousands of genes simultaneously on a surface area equivalent to the size of a piece of chewing gum. Using this new technology, the genomic research team studies the gene expression of tissue samples gathered from various liver tumors. Correlating the gene expression profiles with the clinical outcomes of the cancer, such as patient survival and cancer recurrence, may lead to the discovery of new prognostic tests and treatments. 

We have recently fine-tuned our analysis of the complex gene expression profiles of liver cancer patients, focusing on genes that are highly expressed in liver tumors compared to those in non-cancerous livers. Together with our collaborators at Stanford, the University of Hong Kong, and UCSF, we have identified as potential treatment and prognostic targets several highly-expressed genes that have biological functions relating to liver cancer development. To see our recent publications, please click here.

Biomarkers for Liver Cancer

One of the main obstacles in the effective treatment of liver cancer is the ability to diagnose the cancer while it is in its early stages. The current biomarker used for liver cancer diagnosis (alpha-feto protein) has low sensitivity and specificity, causing a high percentage of patients to remain undiagnosed until the disease is far advanced. An important focus of our research program is on improving early detection of the disease. We work with Stanford scientists as well as external collaborators in using state-of-the-art technologies to allow more accurate and sensitive detection of novel protein biomarkers of liver cancer, and to detect cell free DNA mutations and expression patterns in the blood of liver cancer patients. 

Molecular Targets

Our genomics research helped us to identify several genes that are expressed in high abundance in liver tumor but not in normal liver. These genes may play important biological functions in the various processes involved in the cause and progression of liver cancer, and therefore be potential therapeutic targets in liver cancer. Unraveling the functions of these potentially cancer-causing genes will not only aid in our understanding of the biology of liver cancer, but also provide us with insights into novel therapeutic strategies for the treatment of liver cancer.

Investigational Anti-Tumor Agents

There are a limited number of treatment options for patients with liver cancer. In particular, the currently available standard of care drug for advanced liver cancer patients is sorafenib, which only prolongs overall survival by an average of 3 months. Thus, another focus of our research program is on the identification of novel chemotherapeutic or biological agents that are more efficacious than sorafenib. We use a traditional drug discovery approach to design small molecules or peptide inhibitors of molecular targets identified through our genomics study, as well as computational drug repurposing approaches to identify FDA-approved drugs (for other disease indications) that may have novel uses in the treatment of liver cancer.