UF researchers find link between demographics and liver cancer

Ali Zarrinpar, M.D., Ph.D.A new study by University of Florida Health researchers finds that Hispanics, as well as the elderly and people with diabetes, have a higher risk of developing liver cancer.

Ali Zarrinpar, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of surgery at the UF College of Medicine, and his colleagues aimed to identify factors that put fatty liver disease patients at a greater risk of developing cancer by studying the differences between alcoholic and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, as well as demographic differences among patients.

The findings, published in the journal Liver International, showed alcoholic and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which are distinguished by the patient’s alcohol consumption, share the same cancer risk factors, suggesting demographic differences may be what puts some patients more at risk of developing liver cancer.

The study found that Hispanic patients, as well as older and diabetic patients, are more likely to develop liver cancer. Those over the age of 60 are almost four times more at risk while Hispanics and diabetics are nearly two times at risk. The next step is to focus on why that is.

“The overall findings are that with either form of fatty liver disease, older, diabetic and Hispanic patients are more likely to have liver cancer,” said Zarrinpar. “I think it’s very important that the Hispanic population really be aware that they not only have an increased risk of having fatty liver disease but an additional risk of developing cancer within that fatty liver disease.”

The team looked at a University of California, Los Angeles clinical database of 317 patients, 80 of whom had cancer, who received liver transplants for fatty liver disease, a condition where there is a buildup of excess fat in the liver, over a 10-year period.

While fatty liver disease itself does not have any symptoms, it can lead to inflammation and then scarring of the liver, known as cirrhosis, Zarrinpar said. Cirrhosis can cause many different symptoms of liver failure, such as weakness, fatigue, swelling in the abdomen or legs, or jaundice. Cirrhosis can also increase the risk of developing liver cancer.

“The idea is that these patients need to have more close monitoring to make sure they don’t have cancer in their liver or to catch it earlier so that it can be treated,” Zarrinpar said.

The study also found that while high cholesterol levels were associated with having cancer, being diagnosed with high cholesterol and likely being treated for it with medication may lower the chance of developing liver cancer. The team will study whether cholesterol medications could reduce cancer chances by using the OneFlorida database, a statewide clinical research network and database.

Now that hepatitis C treatments have greatly improved, the No. 1 reason for liver transplantation is alcohol abuse. Other factors may lead to needing a transplant, such as obesity and diabetes, which are correlated with fatty liver disease. Combining risks, such as genetic components to liver cancer and a risk like obesity or alcohol use, can increase the incidence of cancer.   

For more information, please contact Marilee Griffin at margi@ufl.edu or 352-273-5718.