Growing prevalence of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes may be behind rising liver cancer rates

Individuals with type 2 diabetes and other metabolic problems may be more likely to develop either of the two most common types of liver cancer, according to a new report published by a group of researchers from the National Cancer Institute.

The findings, which were published in the journal Hepatology, are important because liver cancer is generally associated with hepatitis infection and alcohol consumption. However, the new results could help medical professionals understand other risk factors. Additionally, the study underscores the importance of maintaining tight control over blood sugar levels.

For the study, the researchers analyzed the medical records of more than 4,000 individuals who had either of the two most common forms of liver cancer. They found that there is a strong association between metabolic syndrome - a collection of conditions including extended waistline, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, impaired insulin sensitivity and unchecked blood sugar - and liver cancer.

Among patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), 37 percent had metabolic syndrome. The condition was present in 30 percent of those who developed intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (ICC). Just 17 percent of the general population who does not develop liver cancer has metabolic syndrome.

People with metabolic syndrome were 2.1 times more likely to develop HCC and 1.5 times more prone to ICC.

The researchers said that cases of liver cancer have been increasing in recent years. However, no one was entirely sure why this was, given the belief among medical professionals that alcohol consumption and hepatitis infections were to blame for most instances. The current findings help explain this mystery, suggesting that the worsening obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics may play an important role in the growing prevalence of liver cancer.

"The risk of developing these primary liver cancers is significant for individuals with this condition," said Tania Welzel, MD, the lead researcher on the study. "Due to the high prevalence of metabolic syndrome, even small increases in the absolute risk for HCC and ICC may contribute to the increasing liver cancer burden."

She added that new efforts to control the spread of metabolic syndrome should be launched. This could have a multifold effect. First, it would limit the number of people who develop type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Secondly, the results suggest it could also curb rising liver cancer rates.