Prognostic Factors and Classification of Thymoma – A New Perspective
Ohio State University Medical Center
Primary thymic epithelial neoplasms comprise a histologically heterogeneous group of lesions
that have been notoriously difficult to categorize by conventional morphology. In addition to
difficulties for histopathologic characterization, such tumors have also presented problems for
predicting clinical behavior. Despite the many advances in the understanding of these lesions,
controversy still exists regarding the best method for prognostication of these tumors. What follows is
a review of some of the major published studies with a new proposal for the histologic characterization
and prognostication of primary thymic epithelial neoplasms.
Prognostic Factors in Thymoma
The issue of determining the factors that affect clinical behavior in thymoma has long
been a subject of debate. Currently, controversy still exists regarding which are the most reliable
prognostic features of these tumors. Traditionally, estimation of prognosis in most tumor systems has
been dependent on the assessment of a variety of clinical parameters as well as grading and staging of
the lesions. Moreover, as chemotherapy protocols and new refinements in treatment modalities become
available, a greater demand has been created by surgeons and oncologists for identifying additional
parameters, such as hormonal status, expression of specific tumor-associated gene products, determination
of proliferation index, DNA content, ploidy, cytogenetic abnormalities, expression of oncogenes or
detection of selected mutations by molecular genetic techniques that will permit stratification of
patients into more sophisticated therapeutic schemes.
Because of the rarity of thymoma and the difficulties for initiating prospective studies,
little progress has been made in the evaluation of some of these newer modalities in these tumors. A
large number of retrospective clinicopathologic studies reported in the literature have addressed the
possible role of several clinical parameters in the clinical behavior of these lesions. For the most
part, the majority of such publications have been hindered by the limited number of cases studied and by
the retrospective nature of the analysis. Most studies, however, have found a lack of any statistical
correlation between age, sex, clinical symptoms or mode of presentation.(1-13) Size of the
tumor was found in some studies to directly correlate with prognosis by univariate
analysis,(4,12) but this has not been substantiated by others. The association with
myasthenia gravis and other autoimmune disorders has also been a topic of intensive study in these
tumors. Although initially it was believed that thymoma patients with myasthenia gravis (MG) were
associated with a worse prognosis,(1,14,15) most recent studies have shown that this is not
the case.(2-13) The poorer survival reported in the older literature is most likely related to
myasthenia-related perioperative tumor deaths rather than to the effects of the tumor itself. In fact,
most recent studies have demonstrated that mortality, recurrence rate, and overall survival are not
affected by the disease or show a somewhat better prognosis than non-myasthenic
patients.(5,6,8) This has been attributed to earlier diagnosis of the tumor and improved
treatment for the disease in myasthenic patients.
The role of flow cytometry for the assessment of prognosis in thymomas has also been reported in
several studies but remains inconclusive (16,17). Similarly, proliferative activity of tumor
cells as determined by immunohistochemical staining of proliferating cell nuclear antigens (PCNA) or
proliferation-associated nuclear antigen (Ki-67) have also been studied in thymoma, although no
clinically applicable results have been obtained so far.(18) Oncogene alterations have also
been recently addressed in these tumors. One study found high expression of bcl-2 in invasive thymomas
and thymic carcinomas, and lack of correlation between p53 expression with the histological subtypes and
aggressive behavior.(19) A subsequent study, however, showed an inverse relationship between
bcl-2 and p53 expression, with p53 being more often expressed in invasive tumors, and bcl-2 being more
often found in spindle cell thymoma.(20) Because of the limited number of cases studied so
far, additional studies will be needed to determine the role of genetic alterations for the prognosis of
The two parameters that the majority of studies appear to regard as being the most important for the
assessment of prognosis in thymoma are staging and histology. Controversy, however, still exists
regarding the relative value of the two, with opinions being divided between those who believe that
staging is the only significant predictor of prognosis for these tumors, and those who argue that
histology also represents an independent prognostic factor, with conflicting results often being reported
in the literature. Assessment of these parameters has been further complicated by the lack of uniformity
in the histologic interpretation and classification of these tumors among the various studies published
so far. With the recent publication of the WHO schema for the classification of thymic tumors, a new and
important tool has been provided that is able to facilitate comparison among the different studies
published in the literature.(21)
The present review presents a retrospective meta-analysis of some of the most significant large
studies of thymoma reported in the literature between 1973-1996, in an attempt to identify general trends
shared by the various studies that could shed some light on the clinical behavior of these tumors (Table
Table I: Meta-analysis of Clinicopathologic Studies of
Thymoma - 1973-1996:
- Bernatz et al, Surg Clin N A,
Vol.53, 1973 (Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, USA)
- Masaoka et al, Cancer, Vol.48,
1981 (Nagoya University, Japan)
- Verley and Hollman, Cancer,
Vol.55, 1985 (Natl. Inst. Med. Research, France)
- Lewis et al, Cancer, Vol.60, 1987
(Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, USA)
- Nakahara et al, J Thor C-V Surg,
Vol.95, 1988 (Osaka University, Japan)
- Pescarmona et al, Ann Thorac Surg,
Vol.50, 1990 (University of Rome, Italy)
- Maggi et al, Ann Thorac Surg,
Vol.51, 1991 (University of Torino, Italy)
- Wilkins et al, Ann Thorac Surg,
Vol.51, 1991 (Mass. Gen. Hosp., Boston, USA)
- Park et al, Cancer, Vol.73, 1994
(M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Texas, USA)
- Pan et al, Hum Pathol, Vol.25,
1994 (National Medical College, Taiwan)
- Quintanilla et al, Cancer, Vol.74,
1994 (Mass. Gen. Hosp., Boston, USA)
- Blumberg et al, Ann Thorac Surg,
Vol.60, 1995 (Memorial Sloan-Kettering, USA)
- Regnard et al, J Thorac C-V Surg,
Vol.112, 1996 (Lannelongue Hosp., France)
Care was taken to select only those studies in which similar parameters were addressed, and for which
similar information was provided that would be amenable for comparison with one another. Although as
many as 4 different histologic classifications were used in the various studies, the WHO schema permits
easy adaptation and comparison for equivalence among the various studies (Table II).
Table II: Comparison of various histologic classifications with the WHO
|WHO schema|| Traditional (Barnatz) || Muller-Hermelink || Verley & Hollman || Masaoka |
|Type A || Spindle cell || Medullary || Type I (spindle) || Spindle cell |
|Type AB || ------ || Mixed || ------ || ------ |
|Type B1 || Predominantly lymphocytic|| Predominantly cortical (organoid) || Type II (lymphocyte-rich) || Lymphocytic |
|Type B2 || Mixed lymphoepithelial || Cortical || ------ || Lymphoepithelial |
|Type B3 || Predominantly epithelial || Well-differentiated thymic carcinoma|| Type III (differentiated epithelial thymoma) || Polygonal/clear cell |
|Type C || Thymic carcinoma || || Type IV (undifferentiated epithelial thymoma)|| |
Unlike most other tumor systems for which assessment of prognosis generally correlates
with both the histology and the staging of the lesion, thymomas have posed difficulties for utilizing
this approach. It was traditionally claimed that histology was a poor predictor of prognosis for these
tumors, and that prognosis could only be reliably assessed based on the staging of the
lesions.(1-4,15) In more recent years, proponents of the histogenetic classification of
thymoma introduced by Marino and Muller-Hermelink have claimed that histologic classification represents
an independent prognostic factor for the evaluation of these tumors.(6,11,22,23) The truth
most likely lies somewhere in-between, and it will be postulated here that rather than relying on one or
the other, the best approach to the evaluation of these tumors should incorporate a combined assessment
of several rather than a single parameter.(24-26)
The present meta-analysis comprised a total of 2050 patients spanning a period of 23 years
(1973-1996). Overall 5, 10 and 15-year survival for the whole group was 75, 61 and 47%, respectively.
Survival for non-invasive (encapsulated) tumors at 5, 10 and 15-years was 83, 75 and 50%, respectively,
compared with a survival for invasive tumors of 49, 30 and 12%, respectively (Fig. 1).
Survival was then analyzed in relation to Masaoka staging and histologic types. Survival at 5, 10
and 15 years by Masaoka stage progressively decreased with higher stages (Fig. 2). Note, however, that
the survival curves for stages I and II (that is, tumors that are essentially confined within the
mediastinum) are very close and do not show a statistically significant difference, whereas a sharp
drop-off occurs between these stages and stages III-IV (frankly invasive and metastatic tumors).
Analysis of histologic types (Table II), including WHO type A (spindle/medullary
thymomas), WHO type B1 and 2 (lymphocytic, mixed lymphoepithelial, cortical, organoid), and type B3
(epithelial-rich, polygonal, squamoid, atypical thymoma, well-differentiated thymic carcinoma) showed the
following survival curves (Fig. 3):
Although statistically significant differences could not be observed between these various
histologic subtypes, predominantly epithelial tumors (excluding spindle cell thymoma) showed a slightly
more aggressive behavior. Interestingly, in two of the studies in this group,(1,3) when the
authors compared the survival curves for the different histologic types according to stage it was noted
that all tumors tended to behave very similar by stage irrespective of histology.
One additional parameter that was found to be of significance in several of the studies was
the extent of the surgical resection.(2,5,7,12,13) This feature was analyzed in 5 of the 13
studies, and showed that survival directly correlated with the status of resectability of the lesion at
the time of initial diagnosis (Fig. 4).
Interestingly, in one of these studies,(5) when survival curves for the
different histologic types were plotted based on the extent of the surgery it was noted that no
significant differences could be observed for the different histologic types in patients who underwent
complete surgical excision, whereas there was a sharp drop in survival for patients undergoing subtotal
resection or biopsy only, irrespective of the histology.
Some of the conclusions that we're able to gain from this meta-analysis are that in
thymoma, at least three parameters appear to play a significant role in determining prognosis for these
tumors: histology, staging, and extent of surgical excision. The results of
most studies to date clearly support the fact that thymoma of predominantly round/polygonal (non-spindle
cell) histology appear to behave in a biologically more aggressive fashion. Thymomas of predominantly
spindle cell type appear to observe the most indolent behavior, and lymphocyte-rich and lymphoepithelial
thymomas seem to fall somewhere in-between.
Care should be taken, however, not to mistake this for an indication that all spindle cell
thymomas are universally benign and that all epithelial-rich thymomas are universally aggressive.
Studies have clearly indicated that when these various histologic subtypes are separated according to
stage, they tend to observe a similar biologic behavior. In recent years, some studies applying the
Kirschner and Muller-Hermelink classification have made the claim that all "medullary" (i.e., spindle
cell) and mixed thymomas are universally benign and have no capacity for aggressive behavior. The
literature and the experience of others do not support this. Numerous examples are on record of spindle
cell thymomas that recurred, metastasized, and otherwise demonstrated aggressive
behavior.(27-29) For this reason, we regard all thymomas as potentially aggressive malignant
neoplasms and feel that proper evaluation of these tumors requires careful examination of the resected
surgical specimen for proper staging.(25)
The fact that when adjusted for clinical stage, the various histologic categories of thymoma tend to
display a similar clinical outcome, and the fact that when adjusted for the extent of surgery (i.e.,
complete vs. incomplete excision) they will also show similar survival
curves, is clearly indicating that the two latter parameters play a more important role in the evaluation
of these tumors than histology alone. Staging and extent of resectability thus become two critical
factors for the assessment of prognosis in these tumors.
Staging in thymoma has also been the source of controversy in the literature. The most widely
accepted staging system for thymoma was the one proposed by Masaoka et al in 1981.(2) A recent
study by Koga et al,(30) however, introduced a modification to the Masaoka staging system
whereby Masaoka's stage II-2 (microscopic invasion into the capsule) was included under stage I, based on
the fact that survival curves revealed that the most important factor associated with the prognosis of
thymoma was invasiveness of the tumor into surrounding organs and structures. The authors thus proposed
that the staging system for thymomas should be simplified and divided into non-invasive (or circumscribed
or confined to within the thymus) and frankly invasive.
Another important modification to the staging of thymoma was introduced by Regnard et
al(13) in a clinicopathologic study of one of the largest series of thymoma published to date.
These authors remarked on the importance of the extent of surgical resection of the tumor for prognosis,
and proposed that this factor also be incorporated into the clinicopathologic staging of these tumors
Table III: Modified Staging of Thymoma – Regnard et al,
|Stage Ia: || Complete resection of completely encapsulated thymoma with no microscopic capsular invasion.|
|Stage Ib: || Complete resection of completely encapsulated thymoma with peritumoral adhesions to surrounding structures.|
|Stage IIa: || Complete excision of thymoma with gross invasion into surrounding fat or mediastinal pleura.|
|Stage IIb: || Complete excision of thymoma with microscopic invasion into the capsule.|
|Stage IIIa: || Complete excision of thymoma with gross invasion of neighboring organs (pericardium, great vessels, lung).|
|Stage IIIb: || Incomplete excision or biopsy of thymoma with gross invasion of neighboring organs.|
|Stage IVa: || Complete resection of metastatic thymoma.|
|Stage IVb: || Incomplete excision of metastatic thymoma.|
Although we do not necessarily endorse the above staging scheme in its present form, we do believe
that the staging of thymoma requires urgent revision and incorporation of the information regarding
extent of resection of the tumor. Likewise, a system of prognostication in thymoma needs to also
incorporate in some form the information provided by the histology and staging of the lesions.
The issue of histologic classification of thymoma also remains controversial. The recently introduced
WHO Schema for the classification of thymic epithelial neoplasms has come to fill an important void for
the study of these tumors by permitting adequate comparisons among the various existing classifications
and nomenclatures.(21) By the admission of its own authors, however, this schema was neither
meant to replace existing terminology nor was it proposed as a "new" classification.(21)
Moreover, the combined use of letters and numbers for the designation of pathologic entities is a quite
unorthodox method of making diagnoses that can lead to much confusion for pathologists and clinicians
On the same year that the WHO schema was proposed, we introduced a novel proposal for the
classification of thymic epithelial neoplasms based on morphologic grades of
differentiation.(25) The purpose of this proposed classification was not only to provide a
conceptual functional and morphologic basis for the histological classification of these tumors, but also
to considerably simplify the issue of morphologic reporting and classification of these lesions.
Essentially, the proposed schema divides thymic epithelial neoplasms into 3 categories depending on the
degree of preservation or absence of the organotypical features of thymic differentiation: 1)
well-differentiated thymic epithelial neoplasms, designated by convention "thymoma"; 2)
moderately-differentiated thymic epithelial neoplasms, designated as "atypical thymoma"; and 3)
poorly-differentiated thymic epithelial neoplasms, designated by convention "thymic carcinoma".
The most significant change introduced by this classification was essentially that of eliminating the
need for further subcategorization of the various histologic subtypes of well-differentiated thymic
epithelial neoplasms (Table IV). The results of the current meta-analysis of the old literature, as well
as several more recently published studies(11,13,31,32) have corroborated this notion. In
fact, the most recent study by Chalabreysse et al,(32) applying the new WHO schema, concluded
from their multivariate analysis that only the histologic classification between types A and B as a
group, as opposed to type C, remained statistically significant.
Table IV: Classification of Thymic Epithelial Neoplasms
According to Grades of Differentiation,
Suster & Moran, 1999.(21)
Tumor type |
Equivalent terms |
-Thymoma type A, AB, B1, B2 (WHO Schema) |
-Cortical, medullary, mixed, organoid thymoma (Kirchner and Muller-Hermelink)
-Lymphocyte-rich, mixed, spindle cell thymoma (Barnatz)
Atypical thymoma ||
-Thymoma type B3 (WHO Schema) |
-Well-differentiated thymic carcinoma (Kirchner and Muller-Hermelink)
-Epithelial-rich thymoma (Barnatz)
Thymic carcinoma ||
-Type C thymoma (WHO Schema) |
-"Other" thymic carcinoma (Kirchner and Muller-Hermelink)
-No equivalent (Barnatz)
We believe that there is definitely merit in separating the WHO type B3 (atypical thymoma in our
classification; well-differentiated thymic carcinoma in the Kirchner/Muller-Hermelink classification)
from the other types of thymoma because they are more often associated with invasion and present at more
advanced stages at the time of diagnosis, and because biologically, they also represent a more advanced
stage of tumor progression than better-differentiated thymic epithelial neoplasms.(24-27)
However, for the purpose of clinical evaluation this must be tempered with the other two important
prognostic parameters, staging and status of resectability.
Based on these observations, we recently proposed a modified approach for the assessment of prognosis
in thymic epithelial neoplasms (excluding thymic carcinoma) that takes into account all of the above
factors(33) (Table V). We believe this combined approach should facilitate more reliable
assessment of prognosis and clinical behavior in these tumors. Likewise, the adoption of a more
simplified histologic classification system should allow pathologists in common practice to provide
clinicians and surgeons with a simple and easily reproducible means of assigning patients to the various
prognostic categories for the selection of treatment.
Table V: Prognostic Categories for Thymic Epithelial
Neoplasms (excluding thymic carcinoma)(33)
Favorable Prognostic Categories |
Unfavorable Prognostic Categories |
Group I: |
Encapsulated or minimally invasive thymoma
Histologic types A, AB, B1, B2 (thymoma)
Group IV: |
Widely invasive thymoma or with implants
All histologic types
Group II: |
Encapsulated or minimally invasive thymoma
Histologic type B3 (atypical thymoma)
Group V: |
Widely invasive thymoma w/wo metastases
All histologic types
Group III: |
Widely invasive thymoma or thymoma with implants
All histologic types
Group VI: |
Widely invasive thymoma with distant metastasis
All histologic types
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