Clinical significance of telomerase reverse-transcriptase promoter mutations in hepatocellular carcinoma

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Abstract: Telomerase reactivation during hepatocarcinogenesis is recurrently caused by two point mutations occurring most frequently at the nucleotide −124 (95%) and occasionally at the nucleotide −146 (<5%) upstream of the TERT translational start site in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). In this study, we designed a droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) assay to detect TERT promoter (TERTp) nucleotide change G>A at position −124 and to quantify the mutant allele frequency (MAF) in 121 primary liver cancers, including 114 HCC along with 23 autologous cirrhotic tissues, five cholangiocarcinoma (CC), and two hepato-cholangiocarcinoma (HCC-CC). All cases were evaluated for tumour markers such as α-fetoprotein (AFP), carbohydrate antigen 19-9 (CA19-9), and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA). We compared the sensitivity of ddPCR and Sanger sequencing and investigated the prognostic relevance of TERTp mutations. The TERTp G>A transition was identified in 63.6% and 52.1% of HCC samples by ddPCR and Sanger sequencing, respectively. One out of 23 (4.3%) peri-tumour tissues tested positive only by ddPCR. One out of five CC (20%) and none of the HCC-CC were found concordantly mutated by the two methods. The TERTp MAF ranged from 2% to 66%, and the large majority (85.5%) of mutated samples showed a value above 20%. A statistically significant correlation was found between TERTp mutation and tumour size (p = 0.048), while an inverse correlation was observed with CA19-9 levels (p = 0.0105). Moreover, HCC patients with TERTp −124A had reduced survival. In conclusion, the single nucleotide variation G>A at position −124 in TERTp, detected either by ddPCR or by Sanger sequencing, showed a remarkable high frequency in HCC. Such mutation is associated with lower levels of CA19-9 and reduced survival in HCC patients suggesting that the TERTp status may represent a distinct signature of liver cancer subgroups.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3771
Issue number15
Publication statusPublished - Aug 1 2021


  • Cirrhosis
  • DdPCR
  • Droplet digital PCR
  • HBV
  • HCC
  • HCV
  • Hepatitis B virus
  • Hepatitis C virus
  • Hepatocellular carcinoma
  • Mutation
  • TERT promoter
  • TERTp

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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