Controversies in Thyroid Pathology
Moderators: Dr. Thomas Giordano and Dr. Paul Komminoth
Section 5 -
Controversies in Molecular Thyroid Pathology
Thomas J. Giordano
Department of Pathology
University of Michigan Health System
Over the last 2 decades, our understanding of the molecular biology of follicular cell
thyroid tumors has improved considerably to the point that the field is on the brink of a therapeutic
transformation. Yet, there are many unanswered questions and issues that remain controversial. In this
presentation, selected controversial issues regarding the molecular biology of follicular cell thyroid
tumors are presented.
Our increased understanding of the pathogenesis of papillary thyroid carcinoma (PC)
reflects the fact that it is the most common malignant thyroid tumor. Much has been learned since the
initial description of RET/PTC rearrangements
It is now appreciated that several mutations in a
variety of genes (i.e. RET/PTC, NTRK, NRAS, HRAS, KRAS, and BRAF) all
function to activate the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signaling pathways
mutations are essentially mutually exclusive, providing strong evidence that a mutation in the pathway is
required for the development of PC and that there is no benefit for the cancer cell of having more than
mutation in the MAPK pathway. Yet, the mutations are not entirely equivalent. It has been known for
some time that a correlation exists between specific mutations and various pathologic characteristics and
clinical behavior. For example, the follicular variant of PC contains a high frequency of RAS mutations
Conversely, PCs with BRAF mutations usually have a classic or tall
cell appearance and are associated with a more aggressive clinical course , although other reports are
not in agreement
So some of the remaining questions include the following: What is the true significance of BRAF mutation? Should PC be considered one disease with variants or should the
variants be considered as distinct entities? Should PC with different mutations be treated differently?
What other mutations exist in well-differentiated PC?
Our understanding of the pathogenesis of follicular thyroid carcinoma (FC) is less
developed compared to that of PC. However, molecular studies are beginning to shed some light on this
tumor. FCs contain 2 predominant mutations . As with PC, these tumors contain point mutation of
RAS genes. More recently, these tumors have been shown to contain a
translocation between the PAX8 and PPARg genes,
resulting in a fusion gene that expresses a fusion protein designated PPFP . While it not exactly
clear how this fusion protein contributes to the pathogenesis of FC, several recent studies have begun to
shed light on the issue
and will be discussed.
Meaning of PAX8-PPARg translocation
Another aspect to the PAX8-PPARg issue is whether this
translocation is confined to FC or found in other tumor types such as follicular adenoma (FA) or PC.
Several studies have found this translocation in FAs
raising the possibility of follicular
carcinoma in situ, a controversial diagnostic entity. One could argue that
tumors with this translocation are pathologically malignant by definition but have not yet manifested
their ability to invade and metastasize.
Another unresolved issue is whether this translocation exists in PC. A recent study using FISH
technology found the translocation in a significant percentage of the follicular variant of PCs .
However, other gene expression studies
have found strikingly distinct gene expression profiles
in FCs with the PAX8-PPARg translocation compared to a large cohort of other
types of thyroid tumors including PC. Thus, there is conflicting data on this translocation depending on
the technology employed.
So some of the remaining controversies in FC include the following questions?
Is the PAX8-PPARg translocation a true marker of malignancy?
Is yes, does this provide support for a diagnostic entity of follicular carcinoma in situ? What is the
best method for PAX8-PPARg screening?
Is the PAX8-PPARg translocation found in other types of thyroid tumors?
How does the PAX8-PPARg translocation contribute to neoplastic transformation?
RAS mutations have been found in a variety of thyroid
tumors. Clearly, the follicular variant of papillary carcinoma is strongly associated with RAS mutations
and they are also found in a subset of follicular carcinoma
(those without the PAX8-PPARg translocation)
. This raises the
following fundamental question: what is the relationship between the follicular variant of papillary
carcinoma and follicular carcinoma with RAS mutations? Are they truly
distinct diagnostic entities or might they represent the end of a single diagnostic spectrum? Recent
gene expression profiles studies from our laboratory suggest that they are closely related but do have
different gene expression profiles.
There remains much to learn regarding well-differentiated follicular cell thyroid
carcinoma. However, the application of high-throughput comprehensive molecular technologies should help
to resolve many of these issues in the coming years. Stay tuned for exciting developments!
Suggested Review Articles
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