Outcomes for patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) remain poor because the condition is often unresponsive to the available treatments. Consequently, the early and precise diagnosis of HCC is crucial to achieve improvements in prognosis. For patients with chronic liver disease, the assessment of liver fibrosis is also important to ascertain both the staging of fibrosis and the risk of HCC occurrence. Early HCC was first described in 1991 in Japan and was defined internationally in 2009. As the concept of early HCC spread, the multistage hepatocarcinogenesis process became accepted. Consequently, improvements in imaging technology made the early diagnosis of HCC possible. At present, the most appropriate therapeutic strategy for HCC is determined using an integrated staging system that assesses the tumor burden, the degree of liver dysfunction and the patient performance status; however, pathological and molecular features are not taken into account. The recent introduction of several new therapeutic agents will change the treatment strategy for HCC. Against this background, HCC subclassification based on tumor cellular and microenvironmental characteristics will become increasingly important. In this review, we give an overview of how pathological analysis contributes to understanding the development and progression of HCC and establishing a precision diagnosis of HCC.
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