For an approach of gene therapy for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), transcriptional regulatory sequence (TRS) of either α-fetoprotein (AFP) or albumin has been used for targeting cancer cells. To examine the feasibility of using TRSs of these genes for possible gene therapy of HCCs, the cellular distribution of AFP and albumin gene transcripts was studied in 25 cases of surgically removed human HCCs. AFP gene expression was observed in HCC nodules of 13 cases. The expression in HCC was heterogeneous, and the distribution of the transcripts was mostly sparse and spotty. The higher the serum AFP levels, the larger population of the AFP-expressing HCC cells tended to reflect. In noncancerous liver, a slight AFP expression was found by Northern blot analysis, but the transcripts were not detected in the liver sections. In contrast, albumin expression was found in all HCCs as well as in noncancerous hepatocytes. In HCC, the transcripts for albumin were distributed in cancer cells, and the expression varied with nodules. There were more albumin-expressing cancer cells than the AFP-expressing cells. Albumin expression was retained even in poorly differentiated HCC, although the intensity of the signal was not as strong as in more-differentiated HCCs. Metastatic HCC nodules revealed transcripts for both AFP and albumin genes, and those were clearly recognized in the lung tissue. These results suggest that, for gene therapy for HCCs, neither AFP nor albumin are ideal options for targeting HCC cells. AFP-TRS may be used as a transcriptional regulator in selected cases in which AFP gene expression is observed in the cancer nodules. The serum AFP level appears to be an important indicator in selecting cases. Albumin-TRS in conjunction with retroviral vector might be used in limited cases such as HCCs with no AFP expression. However, careful consideration must be taken, because albumin is constitutively expressed in normal hepatocytes, and AFP-expressing nonmalignant progenitor cells possibly exist.
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