Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) has become a major contributor to the rising incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in the United States and other developed countries. Iron, an essential metal primarily stored in hepatocytes, may play a role in the development of NAFLD-related HCC. Epidemiologic data on iron overload without hemochromatosis in relation to HCC are sparse. This study aimed to examine the associations between serum biomarkers of iron and the risk of HCC in patients with NAFLD.
We identified 18,569 patients with NAFLD using the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center electronic health records from 2004 through 2018. After an average 4.34 years of follow-up, 244 patients developed HCC. Cox proportional hazard regression was used to calculate hazard ratios (HR) and 95% confidence intervals (CI) of HCC incidence associated with elevated levels of iron biomarkers with adjustment for age, sex, race, body mass index, history of diabetes, and tobacco smoking.
The HRs (95% CIs) of HCC for clinically defined elevation of serum iron and transferrin saturation were 2.91 (1.34–6.30) and 2.02 (1.22–3.32), respectively, compared with their respective normal range. No statistically significant association was observed for total iron-binding capacity or serum ferritin with HCC risk.
Elevated levels of serum iron and transferrin saturation were significantly associated with increased risk of HCC among patients with NAFLD without hemochromatosis or other major underlying causes of chronic liver diseases.
Clinical surveillance of serum iron level may be a potential strategy to identify patients with NAFLD who are at high risk for HCC.