Surgical Pathology of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors: Practical Implications of Morphologic and Molecular Heterogeneity for Precision Medicine

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Abstract

Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST), the most common mesenchymal neoplasm of the gastrointestinal tract, exhibits diverse histologic and clinical manifestations. With its putative origin in the gastrointestinal pacemaker cell of Cajal, GIST can arise in association with any portion of the tubular gastrointestinal tract. Morphologically, GISTs are classified as spindled or epithelioid, though each of these subtypes encompasses a broad spectrum of microscopic appearances, many of which mimic other histologic entities. Despite this morphologic ambiguity, the diagnosis of GIST is aided in many cases by immunohistochemical detection of KIT (CD117) or DOG1 expression. The natural history of GIST ranges from that of a tumor cured by surgical resection to that of a locally advanced or even widely metastatic, and ultimately fatal, disease. This clinicopathologic heterogeneity is paralleled by an underlying molecular diversity: the majority of GISTs are associated with spontaneous activating mutations in KIT, PDGFRA, or BRAF, while additional subsets are driven by genetic lesions—often inherited—of NF1 or components of the succinate dehydrogenase enzymatic complex. Specific gene mutations correlate with particular anatomic or morphologic characteristics and, in turn, with distinct clinical behaviors. Therefore, prognostication and treatment are increasingly dictated not only by morphologic clues, but also by accompanying molecular genetic features. In this review, we provide a comprehensive description of the heterogenous molecular underpinnings of GIST, including implications for the practicing pathologist with regard to morphologic identification, immunohistochemical diagnosis, and clinical management.

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