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Histopathology. 2002 Jul;41(1):42-9.

Primary thymic epithelial tumours of the pleura mimicking malignant mesothelioma.

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  • 1Department of Histopathology, Llandough Hospital, and Vale NHS Trust, Cardiff, UK.



To illustrate the macroscopic, light microscopic and immunophenotypic similarities that exist between primary pleural thymic epithelial tumours and diffuse malignant mesothelioma. To investigate the expression of the mesothelial markers, cytokeratin (CK) 5/6, calretinin and thrombomodulin in a series of mediastinal thymic epithelial tumours.


Over a 10-year period, 64 diffuse pleural tumours of non-mesothelial histogenesis were identified in the files of referrals to the South Wales regional thoracic centre (Llandough Hospital, Cardiff). Of these, five pleural tumours were diagnosed as primary pleural thymic epithelial neoplasms. From the files of the Mesopath group, Caen, three additional cases of thymic epithelial tumours with pleural involvement were identified. The study group comprised eight cases (four males, four females) with median age at presentation of 56 years (range 19-75 years). In one case there was a history of asbestos exposure. Macroscopically, seven tumours formed diffuse pleural masses. No mediastinal abnormality or intraparenchymal lesions were seen in five cases. By light microscopy, seven thymic epithelial neoplasms showed a lobulated architecture, one appeared extensively cystic. The tumours were of varied morphological subtypes: one medullary (WHO Type A), two mixed (WHO Type AB), three predominantly cortical (WHO Type B1) and two cortical (WHO Type B1). The subtypes morphologically mimicked sarcomatoid, biphasic, lymphohistiocytoid variant and epithelioid mesothelioma. The pleural thymic epithelial tumours showed immunoreactivity with broad spectrum cytokeratin AE1/AE3 (8/8; 100%), CK5/6 (8/8; 100%), and 1/8 (13%) expressed thrombomodulin. Calretinin showed variable nuclear and cytoplasmic expression in all cases, but equivocally in the thymic epithelial cell component. In 7/8 (88%) the thymic epithelial cells exhibited focal aberrant expression of CD20. Epithelial membrane antigen (EMA) showed focal expression in the perivascular and organoid areas in 6/8 (75%) cases. Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and CD34 were uniformly negative. In 4/8 (50%) cases the lymphoid cell component was of immature phenotype expressing CD99, terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT) and lymphoid precursors had a high proliferation fraction with Ki67. In the series of 20 primary mediastinal thymic epithelial tumours tested, mesothelial marker expression revealed CK5/6 (20/20), thrombomodulin (3/20; 15%) and calretinin (0/20; 0%). Varying amounts of calretinin-positive stromal cells were present.


Primary pleural thymic epithelial tumours are rare but may mimic malignant mesothelioma by forming diffuse serosal-based masses. In addition, both tumours may show morphological diversity (with epithelial, spindled and mixed components present). An awareness that thymic epithelial tumours may variably express the mesothelial markers CK5/6, calretinin and thrombomodulin prevents misdiagnosis. In the distinction from malignant mesothelioma a lobulated architecture and organoid features favour a thymic epithelial neoplasm. The presence of aberrant CD20 expression in a cytokeratin-positive epithelial neoplasm and/or the presence of an immature lymphoid population (by demonstration of CD1a, CD2, CD99 and TdT) indicates a thymic epithelial neoplasm. In contrast, nuclear calretinin expression favours malignant mesothelioma.

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