A Snapshot of Liver Cancers

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Incidence and Mortality

Primary liver cancer (including intrahepatic bile duct cancer) is the fifth most common cause of cancer death in men and the ninth most common cause of cancer death in women. Over the past two decades, incidence rates for these cancers have increased in people of all races and in both sexes.  Overall mortality rates have been rising an average of 2.6 percent each year over 2002-2011. Men are about three times as likely as women to develop liver and intrahepatic bile duct cancers and more than twice as likely as women to die from these cancers. Asians/Pacific Islanders and American Indians/Alaska Natives have higher incidence rates of these cancers than people of other races/ethnicities.

Almost all cases of liver cancer in the United States occur in people with alcohol-related cirrhosis or who are chronically infected with hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV). Obesity, diabetes, and iron storage disease are other risk factors for liver cancer. Vaccinating for HBV provides long-term protection from HBV infection and has been shown to lower the risk of liver cancer in children, although it is not yet known whether it lowers the risk in adults. There is no standard or routine screening test for liver cancer. Standard treatments for liver cancer include surgery, liver transplant, ablation therapy, embolization therapy, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy.

Line graphs showing U.S. Liver and Bile Duct Cancers Incidence and mortality per 100,000 by race and ethnicity from 1991-2011.  In 2011, American Indians/Alaska Natives have the highest incidence followed by Asians/Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, African Americans, and whites. In 2011, Asians/Pacific Islanders have the highest mortality followed by American Indians/Alaska Natives, Hispanics, African Americans, and whites.

Source: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program and the National Center for Health Statistics. Additional statistics and charts are available at the SEER Web site.

Examples of NCI Activities Relevant to Liver Cancer

Selected Advances in Liver Cancer Research

Pie chart of NCI Liver Cancer Research Portfolio.  Percentage of total dollars by scientific area.  Fiscal year 2013.  Biology, 22%.  Etiology/causes of cancer, 17%.  Prevention, 6%.  Early detection, diagnosis, and prognosis, 18%.  Treatment, 22%.  Cancer control, survivorship, and outcomes research, 9%.  Scientific model systems, 6%.

Source: NCI Funded Research Portfolio. Only projects with assigned common scientific outline area codes are included. A description of relevant research projects can be found on the NCI Funded Research Portfolio Web site.


  • A study that compared the gene expression and cancer metabolite profiles of tumor and nontumor tissues from 30 patients with hepatocellular carcinoma found that expression of SCD (an enzyme involved in fatty acid metabolism) and aberrant lipid metabolite signaling were associated with cancer progression and poor patient outcomes. Published January 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • In a nested case-control study, higher serum vitamin D levels were associated with a lower risk of death from chronic liver disease and, among participants with higher serum calcium levels, a lower risk of liver cancer,  suggesting that vitamin D may be important in the etiology of liver cancer and chronic liver disease. Published September 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Studies using a newly developed cell culture system that is persistently infected with HCV revealed that HCV replication impairs the response to certain antiviral treatments by inducing internal cellular stress and an autophagy response. This finding raises the possibility that targeting chronic cellular stress and HCV-induced autophagy may overcome treatment resistance in chronic HCV infection. Published November 2013. [PubMed Abstract]  
  • A monoclonal antibody directed against GPC3, a molecule highly expressed in many hepatocellular carcinomas, blocked tumor growth in a xenograft mouse model, suggesting that this may be a novel strategy to pursue for liver cancer therapy. Published June 2014. [PubMed Abstract]

Trends in NCI Funding for Liver Cancer Research

NCI’s investment1 in liver and intrahepatic bile duct cancers research was $64.0 million in fiscal year (FY) 2013. In addition to the funding described in the graph, NCI supported $12.2 million in liver and intrahepatic bile duct cancers research in FYs 2009 and 2010 using funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Bar graph of NCI Liver and Bile Duct Cancers Research Investment in 2009-2013: Fiscal year (FY) 2009, $71.1 million of $4.97 billion Total NCI Budget. FY 2010, $72.6 million of $5.10 billion Total NCI Budget.  FY 2011, $66.3 million of $5.06 billion Total NCI Budget.  FY 2012, $64.7 million of $5.07 billion Total NCI Budget.  FY 2013, $64.0 million Liver and Bile Duct Cancers Funding of $4.79 billion Total NCI Budget.

Source: NCI Office of Budget and Finance.

Additional Resources for for Liver and Bile Duct Cancers

  • 1 The estimated NCI investment is based on funding associated with a broad range of peer-reviewed scientific activities. For additional information on research planning and budgeting at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), see About NIH.
  • Posted: November 5, 2014