The Role of Ancillary Techniques in the Assessment of Soft Tissue Tumors
Moderators: Dr. John R. Goldblum and Dr. Cyril Fisher
Section 1 -
Origins, Contemporary Applications and Future of Diagnostic Electron Microscopy Applied to Soft Tissue Tumours
Department of Histopathology
1 – Origins
The origins of the discipline of diagnostic electron microscopy of tumours lie in the development of
instrumentation and technique, on the one hand, and of an intellectual basis for the discipline, on the
in Germany was the first to construct an electron microscope in 1933 (Shampo and Kyle, 1997). While in
practical terms this first instrument only imaged an aperture – nothing very interesting for pathologists
– it nevertheless contained the potential to image structures at the nanometre scale, which would include
intracellular structures. The Second World War delayed any significant development of the electron
microscope (although see Agar, 1996) but 1945 onwards saw rapid commercialisation and increased
availability of electron microscopes.
The earliest specimens to be examined were particles and viruses supported on electron-transparent
films, and another decade was required for the development of consistent thin-sectioning techniques that
permitted the analysis of intracellular structure. The 1960s saw the introduction of high-quality epoxy
resins (Luft, 1961), aldehyde fixation as a preliminary fixative to the metal-fixatives in use before
that time (Sabatini et al 1963; Rosai and Rodriguez, 1968), while the 1970s saw the important technical
step of using dewaxed tissue for electron microscopy (Johannessen, 1977).
the Intellectual Basis for Tumour Diagnosis by Electron Microscopy
The intellectual basis for the diagnosis of tumours
by electron microscopy has several components: (1) – a knowledge of the ultrastructural characteristics
of named tumours (for example, that leiomyosarcomas typically have smooth-muscle filaments and lamina); 2
– ultrastructural interpretational expertise, permitting the recognition of named cell structures or
organelles [desmosomes, melanosomes and so forth]); 3 – a knowledge of the significance of these
structures as markers of cellular differentiation (for example, that thick-and-thin filament arrays and
Z-disks are characteristic of rhabdomyoblastic differentiation). There is an additional optional point,
namely, that many investigators find it useful or interesting to know the functional significance of the
cell structures identified. This can influence diagnostic interpretation. In
short, it is necessary to know how to interpret tumour ultrastructure, and to know which structures are
significant as indicators of particular lines of differentiation.
Development of the Literature on Tumour Ultrastructure
One of the first papers on tumour ultrastructure was Gessler's in 1949
(Notes on the electron microscopy of tissue sections and segregations; submicroscopic spherical bodies in
human carcinoma), whereas one of the earliest papers on the
ultrastructure of a soft tissue tumour – desmoplastic fibroma – was by Rabhan and Rosai in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery of America, 1968. Rosai was also, incidentally,
among the earliest pathologists to recognise that ordinary buffered histological formalin gave acceptable
structural preservation for diagnostic electron microscopy studies (Rosai and Rodriguez, 1968).
The later 1960s, the 1970s and to a decreasing extent the 1980s witnessed an explosion of papers on
human tumour ultrastructure, mainly by pathologists. Many seminal papers appeared in mainstream
pathology journals: American Journal of Surgical Pathology, Human Pathology,
American Journal of Clinical Pathology, Histopathology, Journal of Pathology, Journal of Clinical
Pathology, Virchows Archiv, as well as Cancer, currently not an
essentially pathological journal. These older publications are still useful today, even though,
inevitably, more recently recognised tumour entities, such as PEComa and GANT, are not represented.
At this time also, two specialised ultrastructural journals were established – the Journal of Submicroscopic Cytology (1969)(later
renamed the Journal of Submicroscopic Cytology and Pathology), and Ultrastructural Pathology (1980). Further, a number of textbooks and review
series became available on the ultrastructure of human tissues and human tumours: Bloom and Fawcett –
A Textbook of Histology (the 1962 edition was one of the first to include
good-quality electron micrographic illustrations); Johannessen – Electron
Microscopy in Human Medicine (in 11 volumes, volume 4 of which is devoted to soft tissues); Trump
and Jones – Diagnostic Electron Microscopy (in 4 volumes), and Russo and
Sommers – Tumor Diagnosis by Electron Microscopy (in 3 volumes).
More recently, two large volumes on tumour ultrastructure and a major treatise on cell and matrix
ultrastructure have become available: Dickersin – Diagnostic Electron Microscopy.
A Text/atlas (1994 and 2000); Erlandson – Diagnostic Transmission Electron
Microscopy of Tumors (1994); and Ghadially – Ultrastructural Pathology of
the Cell and Matrix (1997). Books on functional ultrastructure include: Alberts' Molecular Biology of the Cell (2002), Pollard and Earnshaw's Cell Biology (2002), and Pavelka and Roth's Functional
Ultrastructure (2005). Most recently, we have begun to see work in CDROM format (Dardick and
All of these works – the early mainstream pathology journals of the 1970s and 1980s, the specialist
ultrastructural journals, the monographs on normal human tissue ultrastructure, the monographs and edited
series on human tumours and on functional ultrastructure – have contributed to a reservoir of data on
human tumour ultrastructure which we use today in our contemporary diagnostic practice.
One further paper and person meriting special mention here is Jan Vincents Johannessen, not only
because of his vision in establishing the journal, Ultrastructural
Pathology, but also because of his paper emphasising the value of the wax block as a source of
material for ultrastructural diagnosis (Johannessen, 1977). He made the point that although such
material was not optimal for electron microscopy to the extent that organelles might be damaged, enough
characteristic cell structure can often be retained to make interpretation possible and provide
diagnostically useful information. This is relevant today, at least for this author, who is increasingly
asked to diagnose on the basis of tumour tissue from the wax block. Partly, this is because a younger
generation of pathologists is establishing itself in the workplace without much awareness of the value of
electron microscopy in tumour diagnosis, and, partly because of workplace procedures which make it
impracticable to save a piece of each lesion in formalin for eventual electron microscopy.
2 – Contemporary Utility and Applications
Continuing Utility – Rarity of Soft Tissue Tumours – Increasing Diagnostic Confidence – Academic Value
Soft tissue tumours continue to
be examined routinely by electron microscopy for diagnostic purposes, and papers continue to be published
on tumour ultrastructure. Do we still need this activity, and does it have any value?
It is clear that some soft tissue tumour pathologists do not need
much of an ultrastructural input into their practice. Very largely, for such pathologists, the
diagnostic and prognostic requirements for patient management are met by clinical data, histological
sections, immunohistochemistry, cytogenetics and molecular techniques such as FISH and PCR. On the other
hand, many pathologists continue to feel a benefit from electron microscopy. It needs to be remembered
that with specific regard to soft tissue tumours, these are rare. Sarcomas (many if which will be soft
tissue tumours) occur with an incidence of only about 30/million population/year (Fletcher et al, 2002)
compared with about 5000 total malignancies/million. This low incidence can make soft tissue tumours
more difficult to diagnose because unless a pathologist is specialising in soft tissue tumours or working
in a particularly large institution, it may not be easy to gain sufficient exposure to these tumours to
generate maximum diagnostic confidence. Electron microscopy can therefore increase
the level of diagnostic confidence, and some pathologists continue to need this diagnostic
Diagnostic precision is of paramount importance, of course, because the differential may include
tumours of disparate differentiation which might need different treatment protocols: sarcomas can mimic
malignant melanoma, for example (Landas & Urdaneta, 1991; Zelger et al, 1997).
Moreover, some pathologists enjoy the academic process of furthering their understanding of tumour
cell biology and of the mechanisms of disease – an academic approach that is sadly in decline – even
though the data accumulated may have no immediate significance for patient treatment. In fact, if at all
possible, and with only a few exceptions, we at the Christie Hospital in Manchester endeavour to examine
by electron microscopy each and every soft tissue and related tumour that comes our way.
Litigation – Continuing Education
In the face of an
increasingly educated and ligitious population, pathologists also value the confirmation of even firmly
held diagnoses in the case of uncommon tumours. In more general terms, pathologists, I believe, benefit
from an ultrastructural input to their work because exposure to electron microscopy also provides continuing education in that his or her interpretations are continually
challenged: in short, electron microscopy makes good pathologists better
Limitations of Immunohistochemistry
In soft tissue pathology as in other tumour pathology areas, some of the diagnostic
problems arise from uncertainties from immunostaining results due to limitations of immunohisto-
chemistry. The most important are: non-specificity of antibodies; limited immunoreactivity in some
classes of tumour (for example, fibroblastic tumours); distinction between weak-positive and negative
staining; and differing results for the same antibody in different laboratories (Fisher, 2006).
As mentioned, many diagnostic difficulties arise from immunostaining uncertainties, but, equally, most
cases referred for ultrastructural analysis will have a differential diagnosis which has usually been
narrowed down by immunohistochemistry. Here, some recently encountered cases are illustrated to show the
continuing value of electron microscopy in achieving diagnostic precision.
Cases which by Light Microscopy Do not Pose Diagnostic Problems But which Reveal New Information on Electron Microscopy.
Case 1: Malignant myxoid tumour presenting as a gluteal mass in a 54 year old
Tumour resembled a conventional extraskeletal myxoid chondrosarcoma. By electron
microscopy the tumour contained abundant mitochondria and neuroendocrine granules. Subsequent
immunostaining confirmed neuroendocrine differentiation and a diagnosis of neuroendocrine extraskeletal
myxoid chondrosarcoma was made (Harris et al, 2000), a diagnosis which would not have been rendered
without the scientific curiosity of the pathologist.
Cases Revealing an Unexpected Phenotype Compared with Light Microscopy
Case 2: Mass described clinically as "sarcoma of the left groin" in a 65 year
Histologically, this was a pleomorphic sarcoma with solid and myxoid areas. It was
myogenic on the basis of immunostaining for both striated and smooth muscle markers. The diagnosis of rhabdomyosarcoma was favoured but leiomyosarcoma
was part of the differential. Ultrastructrually, the cells were packed with rough endoplasmic reticulum,
no striated muscle cell differentiation was detected, while rare cells possessed some smooth-muscle
myofilaments. Cell processes and prominent lysosomes were also seen. In purely descriptive terms, this
tumour could be regarded as a myogenic fibrohistiocytic sarcoma.
Distinguishing Between Several Diagnoses Within a Differential
Case 3: Malignant round-cell tumour of the pelvis/broad ligament area of a 33
year old woman
Tumour consisted of cords and trabeculae of monomorphic, round, oval or
polygonal cells. The initial differential was: sex-cord stromal tumour, epithelioid leiomyosarcoma and
intra-abdominal (non-desmoplastic) small-round-cell tumour. Immunostaining and the input of a specialist
opinion narrowed the differential to sex-cord stromal tumour v. epithelioid leiomyosarcoma.
a-smooth-muscle actin (SMA), desmin, inhibin and calretinin were positive. Ultrastructural
analysis revealed glandular organisation (lumina with microvillous processes, junctional complexes and
basal lamina). No myofilaments were detected. Desmin and SMA suggested leiomyosarcoma, while sex-cord
stromal tumour was suggested by inhibin positivity (the case was complicated by inhibin being negative in
one laboratory and positive in another) and calretinin. However, it seemed to us that the ultrastructure
was inconsistent with smooth-muscle differentiation, and more acceptable for sex-cord stromal tumour.
Sertoli cell differentiation would be a possibility given that Sertoli cells sit on a basal lamina and
Sertoli cell tumours can express a glandular epithelial organisation. Here, the desmin and cytokeratin
staining could be interpreted as aberrant immunostaining.
Identifying Myofibroblastic and Smooth-muscle Differentiation in Tumours
Case 4: Spindle cell malignancy on the pinna of the ear of a 77 year old
Malignant melanoma had been suspected clinically, and this diagnosis continued to be
considered following histopathological examination and the demonstration of S100 protein in a
recurrence. It was HMB45 negative, and although it was no longer suspected of being malignant melanoma,
an alternative diagnosis was not forthcoming. Ultrastructural examination revealed the three main
features of myofibroblastic differentiation – abundant rough endoplasmic reticulum, peripheral
myofilaments and fibronexus junctions – which justified a diagnosis of myofibroblastic sarcoma.
Case 5: Spindle cell sarcoma of the neck in a 45 year old man, strongly
positive for desmin
The differential diagnosis was inflammatory myofibroblastic tumour v.
leiomyosarcoma. Desmin can be positive in both of these entities, and electron microscopy is recognised
as being able to make a distinction between myofibroblastic and smooth-muscle differentiation on the
basis of surface features: fibronexuses indicate myofibroblastic differentiation, while lamina, plaques
and caveolae indicate a smooth-muscle phenotype. No fibronexuses were seen, while cell surface plaques
and lamina were present. No myofilaments were detected, and the tumour was therefore judged to be a
poorly differentiated inflammatory leiomyosarcoma.
Case 6: Mass in the right thigh of an 11 year old boy
this tumour was thought to be a lipoma, despite the patient's age, but histopathologically it resembled
and was diagnosed as solitary fibrous tumour (SFT). It had delicate
smooth-muscle actin and H-caldesmon immunostaining, while desmin was negative. Ultrastructurally, the
cells possessed poorly developed myofilaments and a well defined lamina. Lamina is not a feature of SFT,
and this, in combination with the smooth muscle actin and H-caldesmon, suggests a kind of smooth-muscle
tumour, possibly a myofibroblastoma. Despite the name, myofibroblastomas have been regarded by some
authors as showing a primitive level of smooth muscle differentiation (Eyden et al, 1996, 1999; Eyden and
3 – The Future
Continuity and Contraction
A few years ago in Histopathology, Gary Mierau and I gave views on the current status of tumour
diagnosis by electron microscopy (Mierau, 1999; Eyden, 1999). My paper emphasised the modest objective
of continuity, while Dr Mierau's was an affirmation of a resurgence of electron microscopy. When one
thinks of the future of diagnostic electron microscopy applied to tumours, however, contraction of the
discipline in the face of other emerging technologies inevitably comes to mind: indeed, this has
happened over the years since the emergence of immunohistochemistry in the early 1980s (Fisher, 2006).
Much in the future will depend on funding and economic activity, the will of individuals to keep the
technique alive, and geography.
Funding – Rationalisation – Large Centres
frequently lead to contraction of overall resources into smaller numbers of fairly well-funded
laboratories. This is perhaps starting to happen in the United Kingdom, as representatives of the UK
Association of Clinical Electron Microscopists are liaising with Government Department of Health
officials to discuss the support of a small number of large diagnostic electron microscopy centres, which
will not only work on tumours but also non-neoplastic fields, such as renal and neuromuscular disease.
This is a parochial example, but generally, diagnostic electron microscopy is likely to continue in big
hospitals or specialist cancer centres where the workload can justify the technique and the salaries of
the Ultrastructural Enthusiast
Often, diagnostic electron
microscopy (and probably many another technique) is pursued by the forceful personality of an individual
who loves electron microscopy, and recognises its value. In these circumstances, the technique may
disappear with the retirement of the individual and leave a vacuum of diagnostic expertise and
As just mentioned, a sizeable workload is usually
needed to justify a diagnostic electron microscope centre. Juan Rosai, at the 2005 4th
Asia-Pacific IAP meeting in Beijing , gave a lecture illustrating how pathology has developed in terms of
time (from 14th century to the present), geography and economic activity (Italy England
Germany America). Rosai hinted at China being the next country in this sequence. China certainly has
plenty of huge population centres, which will produce correspondingly large numbers of tumours: among
these will be diagnostically problematical ones, and here diagnostic electron microscopy may have a
4 – Conclusions
Diagnostic electron microscopy of tumours (including soft tissue tumours) arose from purely scientific
(academic) enquiry, and the technique became practically useful throughout the 1970s and 1980s in
particular. Despite a contraction due to the emergence of competing techniques, it continues to be
useful for solving real diagnostic difficulties, as well as confirming fairly secure diagnoses for the
purpose of providing maximum diagnostic confidence for the pathologist and a protection against
litigation. Outside the narrow confines of providing a more precise diagnosis, electron microscopy
arguably helps pathologists become better pathologists, provides material for furthering our
understanding of tumour cell biology for academically orientated pathologists, and material for teaching.
The future of the technique can be secure provided a combination of factors coincide: these include
the continued funding of large or specialist centres (even if these are few), and the emergence and
support of motivated individuals who recognise the value of the technique and are willing to help others
appreciate its value.
5 – References
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