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Men with hepatitis B are more likely than women to develop liver cancer, and serum concentrations of male sex hormones may play a part, a new study suggests.

Researchers have found that hepatitis B viruses have a special DNA sequence that draw them to androgen receptors. "The androgen receptors in liver cells bind to this sequence and trigger a cascade of damage to liver tissue," they explained.

Working with mice with the hepatitis B virus, the team genetically modified some to lack androgen receptors in the liver. By 22 weeks, more than 90% of mice with androgen receptors had developed tumors, compared with 27% of mice without receptors. Changing the hepatic androgen receptors did not affect overall androgen levels or have any apparent toxic effect.

"The findings indicate that using drugs to destroy androgen receptors could be a new way to battle liver cancer at an early stage," wrote Ming-Hing Wu, of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences in Taiwan, and colleagues. "Targeting the androgen receptor rather than androgen could be a promising therapy for liver cancer."

The full report was published in Science Translational Medicine.

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