Single injections of diethylnitrosamine (5 and 50 µg/g body weight) in male C57BL/6J × C3HeB/FeJ F1 mice when they were 15 days old resulted in the induction of RNA-rich hepatocellular foci and nodules that contained α-fetoprotein (AFP)-positive hepatocytes after 20 and 28 weeks. The focal lesions were composed of 1- to 2-cell-thick plates of hepatocytes or closely packed clusters of cells, but they did not show the histological patterns that are diagnostic of trabecular hepatocellular carcinoma. AFP-positive hepatocytes were found in almost one-fourth (14 of 60) of the foci and nodules in a serially sectioned block of liver from a mouse given one injection of 50 µg/g body weight diethylnitrosamine and killed at 28 weeks. In general, the presence or absence of AFP-positive cells correlated with the size of the foci and nodules. All six nodules with diameters greater than 1.5 mm contained AFP-positive cells, while all 12 foci smaller than 0.24 mm in diameter were negative for AFP. However, among the 42 foci that were intermediate in size, there were 8 AFP-positive foci, the sizes of which appeared rather randomly distributed among the negative foci.

Reactive changes in hepatocytes could be ruled out as a cause of the induction of AFP because the foci first appeared many weeks after the administration of diethylnitrosamine in these mice. Since bile ductules or oval cells, which occasionally appeared in these foci, were lacking entirely in AFP and since ductules are absent from the early-appearing and smallest foci, we believe that in this model the AFP-positive foci arise only from hepatocytes. The presence of AFP in the focal lesions and in tumor thrombi that extended from them into hepatic vein branches supports the hypothesis that some foci undergo progression to invasive microcarcinomas and that these in turn are precursors of late-appearing (after 1 year) metastasizing trabecular hepatocellular carcinomas.

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Supported by NIH Grants CA15664 and CA25522.

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