Tumor expression of immune co-inhibitory ligands, such as PD-L1 and Galectin-9, have potential prognostic value in Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC). Circulating levels of these molecules, however, have hardly been studied. This study aims to assess the prognostic significance of circulating PD-L1 and circulating Galectin-9 in patients with resected HCC, and to compare their prognostic significance to the intra-tumoral expression of these same molecules. Archived tissues and stored peripheral blood samples from 81 patients who underwent HCC resection or liver transplantation, with curative intent, were used. Immunohistochemistry was performed to determine intra-tumoral expression of PD-L1 and Galectin-9, while ELISA was used to quantify their respective circulating levels. High circulating PD-L1 (HR 0.12, 95%CI 0.16–0.86, p = 0.011) and high circulating Galectin-9 (HR 0.11, 95%CI 0.15–0.85, p = 0.010) levels were both associated with improved HCC-specific survival. Surprisingly, there was no correlation between circulating levels of PD-L1 and Galectin-9 and their intra-tumoral expression levels. In fact, circulating levels of PD-L1 and Galectin-9 were predictive of HCC-specific survival independently of intra-tumoral levels and baseline clinicopathologic characteristics. Combined analysis of circulating levels and intra-tumoral expression of PD-L1 (HR 0.33, 95%CI 0.16–0.68, p = 0.002) and Galectin-9 (HR 0.27, 95%CI 0.13–0.57, p = 0.001) resulted in more confident prediction of survival. In conclusion, circulating PD-L1 and Galectin-9 levels prognostically differentiate resected HCC patients, independently of their intra-tumoral expression. Combining circulating and intra-tumoral expression levels of PD-L1 or Galectin-9 further improves the prognostic values of these immune biomarkers.
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