Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a leading cause of global cancer death. Major etiologies of HCC relate to chronic viral infections as well as metabolic conditions. The survival rate of people with HCC is very low and has been attributed to late diagnosis with limited treatment options. Combining ultrasound and the biomarker alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) is currently one of the most widely used screening combinations for HCC. However, the clinical utility of AFP is controversial, and the frequency and operator-dependence of ultrasound lead to a variable degree of sensitivity and specificity across the globe. In this review, we summarize recent developments in the search for non-invasive serum biomarkers for early detection of HCC to improve prognosis and outcome for patients. We focus on tumor-associated protein markers, immune mediators (cytokines and chemokines), and micro-RNAs in serum or circulating extracellular vesicles and examine their potential for clinical application.
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