Pitfalls in Surgical Neuropathology
Moderators: Dr. Arie Perry and Dr. Richard A. Prayson
Case 4 -
Anaplastic Clear Cell Ependymoma, WHO Grade III
(Modified from USCAP Short Course #37 Syllabus by Arie Perry and Daniel Brat)
Arie Perry, M.D.
Washington University School of Medicine
St. Louis, MO, USA
Sheets of clear cells with "fried egg" appearance, sharp demarcation, perivascular pseudorosettes,
occasional signet ring-like cells, "chicken wire" capillary network, multiple foci of endothelial
hyperplasia, scattered mitotic figures, focal necrosis. IHC: GFAP-positive processes highlighting
perivascular pseudorosettes; native neurofilament-positive axons pushed to periphery of tumor (i.e.,
solid or non-infiltrative growth pattern); dot-like EMA positivity, c/w intracytoplasmic lumina; tumor
negative for neuronal markers (synaptophysin, neurofilament, Neu-N) and CD99; MIB-1 LI ranging from 10%
to 50%; Polysomy 1 and 19 (i.e., negative for 1p/19q deletions) and normal 2 copies of chromosome 18 by
Case 4 - Figure 1
Ependymomas are tumors that arise from the ependymal lining of the ventricular system in
the central nervous system. The major forms recognized by the WHO are: Ependymoma, WHO grade II;
Anaplastic Ependymoma, WHO grade III; Myxopapillary Ependymoma, WHO grade I; and
Subependymoma, WHO grade I  . Additional variants include cellular, clear cell,
papillary, and tanycytic ependymomas.
Ependymoma, grade II and Anaplastic Ependymoma, grade III, represent a biologic spectrum
of increasing malignancy
. These are generally tumors of children and young adults that
arise most commonly in the 4th ventricle, the spinal cord, and supratentorial brain parenchyma
. They account for 10% of brain tumors in children and are among the most frequent brain
tumors under the age of 3-yrs-old. The most common location for ependymomas in childhood is the
4th ventricle. Supratentorial tumors occur most often in the parenchyma of the cerebral
hemispheres, often in a slightly older age group. Spinal ependymomas occur most often in adults (30-40
yrs) and are most frequent in the cervical and cervico-lumbar regions.
The clinical symptoms of ependymomas depend on patient age and location
Posterior fossa tumors in infants may present with an enlarging head due to increased intracranial
pressure in the setting of incompletely fused cranial sutures. In slightly older children, increased
intracranial pressure and hydrocephalus are associated with headaches, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and
ataxia. Spinal ependymomas present clinically with sensory and motor deficits that correspond to the
spinal level involved.
By neuroimaging, ependymomas are generally solid with well defined borders. They push
aside adjacent nervous system rather than invading it. In the posterior fossa, ependymomas typically
fill the fourth ventricle and displace the cerebellum posteriorly. It is often difficult to determine if
a posterior fossa tumor arises from the cerebellum and extends into the fourth ventricle (as expected for
medulloblastoma) or if tumors arise in the ventricle and extends into the cerebellum (typical of
ependymoma). Ependymomas in this location may extend into the adjacent subarachnoid space by exiting
through the foramina of Luschka. Ependymomas are contrast-enhancing tumors, but the degree is variable
and the pattern is often heterogeneous.
The histopathology of ependymoma, grade II and anaplastic ependymoma, grade III is
characterized by tumor cells that form true ependymal rosettes or rosettes around central blood vessels
 . Pseuodorosettes consist of ependymal tumor cells
oriented around a central blood vessel with long fibrillar processes that extend to the vessel and give a
pinwheel appearance. True rosettes and elongated canals, form a lumen in their center.
Ependymomas show a wide range of cellularity and degrees of fibrillarity. Other features that can be
seen in ependymoma include intratumoral hemorrhage, foci of necrosis, cartilaginous and osseous
metaplasia, calcification, and hyalinization of blood vessels.
Grading: The criteria for distinguishing ependymoma, grade II from
anaplastic ependymoma, grade III are not well established and the significance of histologic
grading remains controversial
. The current WHO criteria states that anaplastic
ependymomas, WHO grade III are characterized by increased cellularity, brisk mitotic activity,
pseudopalisading necrosis, and microvascular proliferation  . However, it is emphasized that
necrosis by itself, in the absence of pseudopalisading, does not warrant the diagnosis of anaplasia,
since lower grade forms of ependymoma can show degenerative changes. A recent study that investigated
univariate histologic features of prognosis for ependymomas identified 4 features associated with
aggressive behavior: 1) hypercellularity; 2) vascular proliferation; 3) mitoses > 4/10 HPF; and 4)
necrosis  . These features were used to construct models of grading that correlated best
with clinical outcome. The authors concluded that the presence of two of these four features should be
present to make the diagnosis of anaplastic ependymoma, grade III. Other recent studies that have used
similar, consistent definitions of anaplasia (requiring hypercellularity, nuclear anaplasia, and vascular
proliferation) have also shown a significant survival difference between ependymoma and anaplastic
A number of studies have investigated the utility of MIB-1 immunohistochemistry in
. High MIB-1 proliferation index is associated with anaplasia and poor
outcome. However, reproducible cut-off levels that could be used across institutions have not been
established; in the literature, they have varied from 4% to 20%.
Immunohistochemistry and Electron Microscopy : Since ependymomas are glial neoplasms,
generally displaying abundant fibrillarity, it is not surprising that they are GFAP positive in
the majority of cases. Nevertheless, the latter can be very useful in highlighting the typical pattern
of thin cytoplasmic processes radiating towards blood vessels in the center of perivascular
pseudorosettes. They also show reactivity for vimentin and S-100. EMA staining is
variable, but when present, is usually seen along the surfaces formed by ependymal cells, either in
linear arrays or within the canals of ependymal rosettes. More helpful is a rounded or dot-like pattern
of intracytoplasmic staining, corresponding to the intracytoplasmic lumina seen on electron microscopy.
More recently, studies have shown that the majority of ependymomas are also CD99 positive, often
highlighting not only the cell membrane, but also the same intracytoplasmic lumina seen with EMA
. Ultrastructural studies are not needed to establish the diagnosis of ependymoma in
cases displaying classic morphologic features. Nevertheless, in unusual or poorly differentiated
examples, it is the gold standard, diagnostic features including cilia, microvilli, long "zipper-like"
intercellular junctions, and intracellular lumina.
Clear Cell Variant of Ependymoma : Clear cell ependymomas (CCE) occur predominantly in
children and young adults
. This variant is relatively rare and is often misdiagnosed
as oligodendroglioma, given the rounded nuclei, "fried egg" clear cell appearance, and even a chicken
wire-like vascular pattern in some cases. In contrast to the diffusely infiltrative growth pattern of
oligodendrogliomas however, CCE shows the typical solid growth and pushing margins of ependymomas in
general; they also do not harbor 1p and 19q deletions (discussed below). Perivascular pseudorosettes can
be subtle, although they were well formed in the current case. The immunohistochemical and
ultrastructural features of ependymomas in general are also seen in CCE. In comparison to other
ependymomas, supratentorial location, cyst formation, and features of anaplasia are particularly common.
Although the number of reported cases is still limited, there is some suggestion that pediatric examples
are more aggressive than their adult counterparts. Loss of chromosome 18 has recently been reported to
be common in the anaplastic CCEs  , although it was not seen in the current example.
Differential Diagnosis of CNS Tumors with a "Fried Egg" or Clear Cell Appearance
Many CNS tumors may have rounded nuclei with clear haloes and often, the first
consideration is oligodendroglioma. However, the differential diagnosis is relatively broad (Table
below). The greatest overlap is with the diffuse astrocytomas, which generally share a common
clinical presentation and infiltrative growth pattern. The current distinction rests primarily on
nuclear cytology, which unfortunately is far from perfect
. Astrocytic nuclei are more
typically oval, spindled, or irregular, although when cut in cross section, they may appear rounded and
occasionally associated with clear haloes, particularly in poorly fixed or partially autolyzed specimens,
such as those encountered in CUSA (Cavitron ultrasonic aspiration) specimens where the filtered
tissue often sits for prolonged periods in saline before being submitted to pathology.
GFAP-immunoreactive processes support astrocytic over oligodendroglial derivation, though even
this is fairly unreliable, since one may be fooled by processes belonging to entrapped reactive
astrocytes or by non-specific background staining of axons. Likewise, there are many oligodendrogliomas
with GFAP-positive minigemistocytes and gliofibrillary oligodendrocytes. Thus, much of the remaining
diagnostic difficulties reflect the fact that there are currently no absolutely specific
oligodendroglioma markers. Though some would argue that 1p/19q testing now fulfills that role
(discussed below), the sensitivities and specificities are still imperfect. Other entities are more
readily distinguishable based on specific clinical, gross/radiologic, and histopathologic features
(Table). Although it is not widely appreciated, pilocytic astrocytoma may display regions that
not only resemble diffuse astrocytoma, but oligodendroglioma as well. Fortunately, the clinical features
are usually distinctive and a pediatric tumor in the cerebellum, optic pathway, hypothalamus/third
ventricle, thalamus, dorsal brainstem, or spinal cord is far more likely to represent pilocytic
astrocytoma than oligodendroglioma. Furthermore, the majority of pilocytic astrocytomas harbor at least
a few Rosenthal fibers and/or eosinophilic granular bodies (EGBs), though neither is
absolutely necessary or specific for the diagnosis. An "intraventricular oligodendroglioma" is a
central neurocytoma until proven otherwise and its neuronal differentiation is easily verified
with synaptophysin and Neu-N immunostains. Pineocytomas look virtually identical to
central neurocytoma, but involve the pineal gland instead. A dysembryoplastic neuroepithelial
tumor (DNT) may be impossible to separate from oligodendroglioma on a needle biopsy, but larger
specimens typically reveal the characteristic intracortical localization, nodular growth pattern,
and "floating neurons". Clear cell ependymoma is discussed above.
Genetic Biomarkers in Oligodendrogliomas
In no other area of brain tumor pathology has genotyping proven more clinically valuable
than in the genetic profiling of oligodendroglial tumors  . Comprising 10- 25% of adult
gliomas, oligodendrogliomas tend to behave in a less aggressive fashion than astrocytomas, with slower
progression and longer patient survival. Likewise, the dramatic therapeutic responses to PCV
(procarbazine, CCNU, vincristine) chemotherapy reported in subsets of anaplastic oligodendroglioma
patients is a noteworthy finding in comparison to the usual lack of response in astrocytomas. LOH and
FISH studies have shown 1p and 19q codeletion in 60-90% of oligodendrogliomas. Cairncross and
colleagues' landmark study was the first to establish an association between anaplastic
oligodendrogliomas bearing this "molecular signature" and the likelihood of favorable therapeutic
response and prolonged survival  . Similarly, Smith et al reported that combined 1p/19q
deletions were associated with prolonged survival in oligodendrogliomas, including low-grade examples
 . Studies have further suggested that these "genetically favorable"
oligodendrogliomas are also more sensitive to other forms of therapy, including radiation and
less toxic chemotherapeutic agents, such as temozolomide
Given the prognostic and therapeutic implications, we and others routinely perform 1p/19q
testing in all oligodendrogliomas and tumors with suspected oligodendroglial features. We have reported
our initial observations in detail  and they've remained valid over time with over 1500
gliomas tested thus far. As in a number of retrospective series, we've found 1p/19q codeletion to be
highly associated with morphology: 85% in oligodendrogliomas, 15% in mixed oligoastrocytomas (MOAs), and
<1% in astrocytomas (p<0.001). With respect to patient survival, our results have been similar to
retrospective studies in that the "genetically favorable" (1p/19q codeletion) pattern is greatly
overrepresented in long-term survivors. There have however been notable exceptions and therefore, the
genetics should not be interpreted in a vacuum, but rather as a supplement to more classic clinical and
Apart from the obvious prognostic implication discussed above, identification of 1p/19q
codeletions may also be helpful in daily pathology, as there are a number of lesions that pose formidable
diagnostic challenges. For example, dysembryoplastic neuroepithelial tumors (DNTs), central
neurocytomas, extraventricular neurocytomas, and clear cell ependymomas do not have
these deletions, with the exception of extraventricular neurocytomas (EVNs). In our series, two of
twelve EVNs harbored 1p/19q codeletion, suggesting that either this genetic signature is not entirely
specific or that these rare tumors may be histogenetically related to oligodendrogliomas. Reports of
oligodendrogliomas with neurocytic differentiation support the latter theory  . As
discussed in the previous section however, an even more common differential diagnostic consideration is
small cell glioblastoma.
Compared to their adult counterparts, pediatric
oligodendroglial tumors are far less common, with little published data regarding their
clinicopathologic or molecular characterization. In Raghavan and colleagues' review of 26 cases, 1p/19q
deletions were rare and not obviously associated with clinical outcome . Those with
deletions were most commonly teenagers and therefore, may represent older children with "adult type"
oligodendroglioma. These observations have been subsequently validated by other groups as well
Table 1 - Differential Diagnosis for Clear Cell Tumors of CNS
|Diagnosis ||Helpful Distinguishing Features|
|Oligodendrogliomas (WHO II-III) ||Adult (usually) ||Superficial/cortical epicenter, extensive calcification ||Monomorphic round nuclei, crisp nuclear membranes, GFAP+ MGs / gliofibrillary oligos, -1p/19q|
|Diffuse Astrocytomas (WHO II-III) ||Adult (usually) ||Deep epicenter ||Elongated dark nuclei, pleomorphism, GFAP+ processes, TP53 mutations|
|Small Cell GBM (WHO IV) ||Adult (usually) ||Deep epicenter, ring-enhancing (~2/3rd) ||Monomorphic oval nuclei, many mitoses, GFAP+ processes, EGFR-AMP, -10q|
|Pilocytic Astrocytoma (WHO I) ||Child or young adult ||Cerebellum, optic pathway, spinal cord, hypothalamus/3rd v., cyst with enhancing mural nodule, discrete ||Rosenthal fibers, eosinophilic granular bodies (EGBs), limited invasion, thin GFAP+ processes|
|DNT (WHO I) ||Child or young adult, long seizure history ||Temporal lobe, limited to cortex, T1-dark, T2-bright nodularities ||Patterned mucin-rich nodules, floating neurons, oligo-like cells, limited to cortex|
|Central Neurocytoma or Pineocytoma (WHO II) ||Hydrocephalus-type symptoms ||Lateral ventricle / septum pellucidum, pineal, enhancing ||Rosette / neuropil formation, oligo-like cells, synaptophysin+|
|Clear Cell Ependymoma (WHO II-III) ||Child or young adult ||Discrete borders, enhancing, cystic, often supratentorial ||Non-infiltrative, GFAP+ perivascular pseudorosettes, CD99/EMA+ lumina|
|Clear Cell Meningioma (WHO II) ||Child or young adult (usually) ||Spinal cord / post. fossa, extra-axial ||Dural-based, vague whorling, perivascular / interstitial collagen, glycogen-rich, EMA+|
|Metastatic Renal Cell Carcinoma ||Adult ||Discrete borders, enhancing, single or multiple ||Non-infiltrative, large nucleoli, CK+, EMA+, CD10+|
|Hemangioblastoma ||Adult ||Cerebellum, spinal, brainstem, nerve root, cyst with enhancing mural nodule ||Vacuolated inhibin+, S-100+, NSE+ stromal cells, hypervascular, EMH (~10%)|
|Germinoma ||Child ||Suprasellar and/or pineal, enhancing ||Large cells, big nucleoli, lymphocytic infiltrate, granulomas|
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