Hepatocellular Adenoma Workup

Updated: Feb 21, 2018
  • Author: Bradford A Whitmer, DO; Chief Editor: BS Anand, MD  more...
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Laboratory Studies

Serologically, hepatocellular adenomas are a diagnosis of exclusion. No specific serologic studies exist.

Serum aminotransferase (aspartate aminotransferase [AST]/alanine aminotransferase [ALT]) levels are mildly elevated in approximately 50% of patients, likely due to the mass effect of the tumor.

Serum alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) levels are within the reference range in patients with hepatocellular adenoma. Elevations are noted in 50% of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cases. Thus, finding an elevated AFP represents either a primary carcinoma or an adenoma that has undergone malignant transformation. An AFP level within the reference range does not eliminate HCC from the differential diagnosis.

Elevated carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) levels suggest metastasis from the colon.

Serologies for amebiasis and echinococcus should be considered if the lesion appears cystic.


Imaging Studies

Findings on imaging studies in cases of hepatocellular adenomas generally are nondiagnostic because the mass often is solitary and well demarcated. Distinguishing characteristics generally are absent. Ultrasound and CT imaging are more specific if intralesional hemorrhage is noted. Advances in contrast-enhanced MRI and contrast-enhanced ultrasonography may be helpful to distinguish HCA and possibly Bordeaux classification subtypes (see below). [33, 34]


A nonspecific finding reveals a hypoechoic lesion, which usually is subcapsular (7% pedunculated), well circumscribed, ranges from 2 to 20 cm in size, and is located predominantly in the right lobe of the liver.

Doppler flow patterns in hepatocellular adenomas are venous, as compared to the arterial pattern noted in FNH.

Contrast-enhanced ultrasonography (CEUS)

CEUS involves using a microbubble contrast that reveals an enhancement in the arterial phase of HCA and focal nodular hyperplasia, but rapidly washes out in the portal venous and delayed phase in HCA. [35, 36, 37, 38]

The reported sensitivity in differentiating HCA from focal nodular hyperplasia has ranged from 86% to 95%, and the specificity has ranged from 74% to 79%. [39]

Computed tomography scanning

HCA appears as a nonspecific, well-circumscribed mass that has a low density on noncontrast images and a marked centripetal pattern of enhancement on arterial phase. It then fades to isodensity in the portal or delayed phase. The lesion can have a central necrotic area or calcifications. Most adenomas are encapsulated on CT scan.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

The appearance of hepatocellular adenoma on MRI is variable, owing to the presence or absence of hemorrhage. Hyperintense heterogeneous signals on T1- and T2-weighted imaging are often due to lipids contained within the lesion. [40]  Hemorrhagic HCAs may also have hyperintense T1 imaging with subcapsular hemosiderin rings in 30% of patients.

Kupffer cell–specific MRI agents (superparamagnetic iron oxides [SPIO] and ultra-small superparamagnetic iron oxides [USPIO]) can be administered during the scan. They show no uptake due to a lack of endothelial-reticular cells.

Manganese–dipyridoxal diphosphate (DPDP), gadolinium, or gadobenate dimeglumine (Gd-BOPTA) can be administered during the scan. These show strong uptake due to the presence of hepatocytes. MRI with contrast can differentiate hepatocellular adenoma from FNH in 70% of cases. [41]

Unfortunately, HCC also has a predominance of hepatocytes, which makes these agents unable to differentiate between hepatocellular adenomas and HCC.

In a cost-effectiveness analysis of the diagnostic strategies for differentiating focal nodular hyperplasia from hepatocellular adenoma, investigators using a decision tree model found that although a gadoxetic acid-enhanced MRI (EOB-MRI) strategy was most cost-effective, there was similar effectiveness between the EOB-MRI, conventional MRI, and biopsy strategies in patients with incidentally detected liver lesions in a noncirrhotic liver. [42]

Nuclear scans

Hepatocellular adenomas appear as cold nodules on technetium-99m (99m Tc) sulfur colloid scans, which distinguishes them from FNH, which typically shows normal or increased colloid uptake. This is due to the altered blood flow through the lesions and the lack of phagocytic activity of Kupffer cells.


This imaging modality is rarely performed and has been substituted by CT or MR angiography in most centers. Hepatocellular adenomas appear as well-defined, round or ovoid, hypervascular masses with hepatic arterial branches entering from the periphery. Vessels within the mass are tortuous and of varying calibers with flow moving centrally from the periphery. Avascular areas and intralesional hematomas are indicators of hepatocellular adenomas.


Other Tests

It may be reasonable to perform immunohistochemistry to further characterize the lesion under the new Bordeaux classification of HCA currently being evaluated. This subclassification includes hepatocyte nuclear factor 1α-inactivated HCA (HNF1α HCA 30-35%), β-catenin-mutated HCA (β-cat HCA 10-15%), inflammatory HCA (50%), and a subgroup of less than 10% that remains unclassified. Ten percent of inflammatory HCA can also be β-cat mutated. [12]

Glutamine synthetase staining may be useful in differentiating β-catenin-activated HCA and focal nodular hyperplasia owing to differences in their staining patterns. Focal nodular hyperplasia has a maplike distribution that is distant from fibrous bands or arteries, while β-catenin-activated HCAs have a more diffuse staining pattern. [43, 44]

Although HCAs may transform into HCC, the AFP is an insensitive test for HCC screening, yet few other tests are available. Zucman-Rossi et al classified 96 HCAs by sequencing the genes coding for HNF1α and β-cat. [45] The investigators reported that HCC is found in 46% of β-cat–mutated tumors, whereas they are rarely found in HNF1α tumors or tumors that lack β-cat or HNF1α.

Tumor cell expression patterns of E-cadherin and matrix metalloproteinases -1,-2,-7 and -9 were studied in a variety of liver tumors and controls by Tretiakova et al. [46] The investigators reported that hepatocellular adenoma was characterized by an absence of matrix metalloproteinase-7 expression, whereas HCC without cirrhosis had low metalloproteinase-9 expression.

Glycipan-3 (GPC3) is a cell surface glycoprotein that is overexpressed in HCCs. Wang reported that GPC3 staining was not present in all 110 cases of benign liver tumors in their study, yet the staining was positive in 75.7% of HCCs. [47]

Agrin is a proteoglycan component of bile duct and vascular basement membranes of the liver and is deposited in microscopic blood vessels of HCC. Tatrai et al reported that the combination of immunohistochemical staining for agrin and CD34 was helpful for differentiating HCC from benign lesions when the diagnosis was equivocal. [48] In addition, agrin appeared to be more sensitive than GPC-3, as agrin is diffusely deposited in all malignant lesions, whereas GPC-3 may only be present in a few cells.

Ahmad reported that a combination of cytokeratin 7 and 9 with neuronal cell adhesion molecule immunostains were very helpful in differentiating normal liver tissue from tumors and also in differentiating hepatocellular adenomas from FNH. [49]



Results of histologic evaluation with a liver biopsy are nondiagnostic and insensitive because the mass is comprised of normal-appearing hepatocytes.

However, a study evaluating immunohistochemical markers on needle biopsies compared against surgical specimens found that immunohistochemistry allowed for the discrimination of focal nodular hyperplasia from hepatocellular adenoma and allowed for identification of hepatocelluar adenoma subtypes proposed in the new Bordeaux classification with 74.3% certainty. Further studies are needed. [50]

In a retrospective review (2000-2013) of the electronic medical records of all patients who underwent hepatic mass biopsy revealing hepatocelluar adenoma, Doolittle et al investigated the safety and outcomes of biopsy of these lesions. [51] Of 60 identified patients with a total of 61 biopsy-proven hepatocelluar adenomas, they found that 1 patient (2%) had a single major complication and 6 patients (10%) had a minor complication. In addition, they found 6 (10%) discordant biopsy results. [51]

Resection and evaluation may be required as the most specific way to confirm the diagnosis.


Histologic Findings

Upon gross examination, hepatocellular adenomas appear as sharply circumscribed, light brown to yellow tumors that are soft in consistency and often lack a true fibrous tumor capsule. [52] Although these lesions are usually solitary, hepatocellular adenomas may be multiple, with sizes ranging from 1 to 30 cm, although most are between 8 and 15 cm. Adenomas tend to be larger in women on OCPs. They also occur more frequently in the right lobe and are usually subcapsular, although pedunculated adenomas have also been described.

On microscopic examination, the hallmark of adenomas is the normal appearance of the hepatocytes. These are arranged in sheets and have no malignant features. These cells tend to be larger than normal hepatocytes, and their cytoplasm often contains fat or glycogen. (Their cytoplasm may appear relatively pale due to abundant glycogen stores when compared with normal hepatocytes). Generally, few, if any, portal tracts are present, and no central veins or bile ducts should be present. [53] However, Bisceglia et al reported that subtypes of HAs may have CK7 positive ductules and are called hepatocellular adenoma with ductal/ductular differentiation. [54]

Peliosis hepatis may occasionally be seen, and Kupffer cells are reduced in number or are absent. [55] Vessels, when observed, tend to have thickened walls. Areas of thrombosis and infarction may be observed. Most hepatocellular adenomas contain a variable degree of microscopic collections of fat. Differentiation from a high-grade HCC can be difficult, if not impossible. Adenomas tend to lack malignant-appearing mitotic structures, the cell plates are generally only 2 cells thick, and no cellular infiltration (invasion) into the capsule or surrounding liver parenchyma occurs. Unfortunately, these features may also be seen in HCC, especially if it is well differentiated.

Hypervascularity is present upon the surface of the lesion. Because adenomas contain no portal vein branches, their blood supply is entirely arterial. The tendency for these lesions to bleed may be related to poor connective tissue support and their increased vasculature, which is made up of thin-walled, dilated sinusoids carrying blood at arterial pressure.