The presence of cirrhosis in patients with autoimmune hepatitis markedly increased their risk of hepatocellular carcinoma, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis of 25 cohort studies and 6,528 patients.

Estimated rates of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) were 10.1 (6.9-14.7) cases per 1,000 person-years in these patients versus 1.1 (0.6-2.2) cases per 1,000 person-years in patients without cirrhosis at diagnosis, Aylin Tansel, MD, of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and associates reported in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology (doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2017.02.006). Thus, surveillance for HCC “might be cost effective in this population,” they wrote. “However, patients with AIH [autoimmune hepatitis] without cirrhosis at index diagnosis, particularly those identified from general populations, are at an extremely low risk of HCC.”

Autoimmune hepatitis may be asymptomatic at presentation or may cause severe acute hepatitis or even fulminant liver failure. Even with immunosuppressive therapy, patients progress to cirrhosis at reported annual rates of 0.1%-8%. HCC is the fastest-growing cause of cancer mortality, and the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) recommends enhanced surveillance for this disease in patients whose annual estimated risk is at least 1.5%. Although the European Association for the Study of Liver Diseases recommends screening for HCC in patients with autoimmune hepatitis and cirrhosis, AASLD makes no such recommendation, the reviewers noted. To study the risk of HCC in patients with autoimmune hepatitis, they searched PubMed, Embase, and reference lists for relevant cohort studies published through June 2016. This work yielded 20 papers and five abstracts with a pooled median follow-up period of 8 years.

The overall pooled incidence of HCC was 3.1 (95% confidence interval, 2.2-4.2) cases per 1,000 person-years, or 1.007% per year, the reviewers wrote. However, the 95% confidence interval for the annual incidence rate nearly encompassed the 1.5% cutoff recommended by AASLD, they said. Furthermore, 5 of 16 studies that investigated the risk of HCC in patients with concurrent cirrhosis reported incidence rates above 1.5%. Among 93 patients who developed HCC in the meta-analysis, only 1 did not have cirrhosis by the time autoimmune hepatitis was diagnosed.

The meta-analysis also linked HCC to older age and Asian ethnicity among patients with autoimmune hepatitis, as has been reported before. Male sex only slightly increased the risk of HCC, but the studies included only about 1,130 men, the reviewers noted. Although the severity of autoimmune hepatitis varied among studies, higher rates of relapse predicted HCC in two cohorts. Additionally, one study linked alcohol abuse to a sixfold higher risk of HCC among patients with autoimmune hepatitis. “These data support careful monitoring of patients with autoimmune hepatitis, particularly older men, patients with multiple autoimmune hepatitis relapses, and those with ongoing alcohol abuse,” the investigators wrote.

They found no evidence of publication bias, but each individual study included at most 15 cases of HCC, so pooled incidence rates were probably imprecise, especially for subgroups, they said. Studies also inconsistently reported HCC risk factors, often lacked comparison groups, and usually did not report the effects of surveillance for HCC.

Dr. Tansel reported receiving support from the National Institutes of Health. The reviewers had no conflicts of interest.