A South Texas medical mystery

It’s long been a grim medical mystery in this region why rates of liver cancer are high here, particularly among Hispanics.

Taking a deeper look at rates of the most common form of liver cancer across the country over a 15-year period, researchers at UT Health Science Center San Antonio found the highest rates in the nation among South Texas Hispanics.

The new study, led by Dr. Amelie Ramirez, professor and director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the Health Science Center, used data from state and national cancer registries between 1995 and 2010 to look at rates of hepatocelluar carcinoma, which makes up about 90 percent of U.S. liver cancer cases.

They found that Hispanics in Texas had liver cancer rates 3.1 to 4 times higher than non-Hispanic whites nationwide. The rates for Hispanics in South Texas were 3.6 to 4.2 times higher.

The findings were published in the June edition of the journal PLoS One.

In general, risk factors for liver cancer include hepatitis B and C, alcohol abuse, diabetes and obesity. In other parts of the world, contaminants in food such as aflatoxin are major causes. The authors said the true causes in South Texas are unknown.

“The incidence of (hepatocellular carcinoma) among Latinos in South Texas remains higher than elsewhere in the U.S. and warrants closer investigation of potential risk factors related to prevailing conditions unique to the population, including higher obesity and diabetes rates, environmental, cultural and socioeconomic factors and possibly genetic predisposition,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Jose Almeda, a liver transplant surgeon at University Transplant Center, a partnership between University Health System and UT Medicine San Antonio, treats patients from throughout South Texas. He said in a interview last year that the burden of liver disease and liver cancer is even higher along the border than in San Antonio.

“There’s more hepatitis C, more fatty liver disease. More people needing liver transplants in the (Rio Grande) Valley. Possible causes include diet, exercise, carcinogens, the water. No one really knows,” Almeda said.