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The team, led by Penn professor Vincent Lo Re and University of Washington professor Nina Kim, analyzed over 8,000 Americans and Canadians infected with both HIV and hepatitis B.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

A new study led by Penn Medicine researchers found that in patients with both HIV and hepatitis B, treatment of hepatitis B reduces the risk of primary liver cancer. 

The team, led by associate professor of medicine Vincent Lo Re and University of Washington professor Nina Kim, analyzed over 8,000 Americans and Canadians infected with both HIV and hepatitis B, or HBV. The study found that the presence of HBV resulted in a two-fold increase in the risk of primary liver cancer. They also found that long-term treatment of hepatitis B reduced the risk by 58%.

“HIV/hepatitis B dual treatment really remains essential to preventing liver cancer," Lo Re said. "Our data really show that sustained and ideally uninterrupted suppression of hepatitis B really may be necessary over years.”

Primary liver cancer, or HCC, is the most common liver cancer, the sixth most common cancer overall, and the third most common cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. Chronic HBV is a leading cause of HCC, and it is common for patients who have hepatitis B to also be diagnosed with HIV, according to Penn Medicine. 

The researchers also looked at other risk factors for primary liver cancer. They found that those over the age of 50, as well as those who consume large amounts of alcohol, are more likely to develop HCC. Those with HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C all at the same time were also at high risk of developing HCC. 

This was the first study to examine primary liver cancer risk in HIV and HBV patients with a sample size large enough to represent the population, Lo Re said. Additionally, this is the first study done on primary liver cancer patients in North America. Lo Re said it is important to examine American populations due to varying types of HBV located on different continents.

Lo Re and his team also studied the causes of liver complications among those infected with both HIV and hepatitis B in 2019. In the study, they found that HIV suppression can lower the risk of liver diseases, including HCC.

In the future, Lo Re plans to study how healthcare providers treat hepatitis B from diagnosis to suppression in order to better understand how to prevent liver cancer.

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