BACKGROUND. Stromal invasion is 1 of the main features used to distinguish high-grade dysplastic nodules (DNs) from well-differentiated hepatocellular carcinomas (HCCs). The authors hypothesized that ductular reaction (DR) takes place around noninvasive hepatocellular nodules but not within the stroma contiguous to invasive HCC. METHODS. DR/cytokeratin 7 (CK7)-positive patterns were evaluated in 105 resected small hepatic nodules according to the level of invasion. The nodules were classified histologically prior to immunostaining as noninvasive (large regenerative nodules, low-grade DNs, and high-grade DNs), minimally invasive (early HCCs with a vaguely nodular type), and overtly invasive (typical HCCs with a distinctly nodular type) in a review by expert pathologists, the current gold standard. Intranodular DR (inner DR) and DR around the nodule periphery (outer DR) were assessed separately on a semiquantitative scale from 0 to 4+. RESULTS. DR was 3 or 4+ in the majority of noninvasive nodules (inner DR, 81%; outer DR, 91%), whereas DR was 0 or 1+ in overtly invasive HCCs (inner DR, 96%; outer DR, 81%). Minimally invasive HCCs showed an intermediate DR pattern (2 or 3+ inner DR, 75%; 2+ outer DR, 67%). DR characteristically was absent at the stromal-invasive, leading edge of tumor cells in both minimally invasive HCCs (focal loss of DR/CK7) and overtly invasive HCCs (diffuse loss of DR/CK7). The DR patterns in 41 needle-biopsy samples were similar to the patterns observed in resected nodules. CONCLUSIONS. DR/CK7 immunostaining may help to identify small foci of invasion and to distinguish noninvasive, high-grade DNs from both minimally invasive and overtly invasive HCCs.
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