The striking gender disparity observed in the incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) suggests an important role of sex hormones in HCC pathogenesis. Though the studies began as early as in 1980s, the precise role of sex hormones and the significance of their receptors in HCC still remain poorly understood and perhaps contribute to current controversies about the potential use of hormonal therapy in HCC. A comprehensive review of the existing literature revealed several shortcomings associated with the studies on estrogen receptor (ER) and androgen receptor (AR) in normal liver and HCC. These shortcomings include the use of less sensitive receptor ligand binding assays and immunohistochemistry studies for ERα alone until 1996 when ERβ isoform was identified. The animal models of HCC utilized for studies were primarily based on chemical-induced hepatocarcinogenesis with less similarity to virus-induced HCC pathogenesis. However, recent in vitro studies in hepatoma cells provide newer insights for hormonal regulation of key cellular processes including interaction of ER and AR with viral proteins. In light of the above facts, there is an urgent need for a detailed investigation of sex hormones and their receptors in normal liver and HCC. In this review, we systematically present the information currently available on androgens, estrogens and their receptors in normal liver and HCC obtained from in vitro, in vivo experimental models and clinical studies. This information will direct future basic and clinical research to bridge the gap in knowledge to explore the therapeutic potential of hormonal therapy in HCC. © 2008 The WJG Press. All rights reserved.
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