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Ann Oncol. 2000;11 Suppl 1:3-10.

Lymphoma classification--from controversy to consensus: the R.E.A.L. and WHO Classification of lymphoid neoplasms.

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Department of Pathology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA.



Controversy in lymphoma classification dates back to the first attempts to formulate such classifications. Over the years, much of this controversy arose from the assumption that there had to be a single guiding principle--a 'gold standard'--for classification, and from the existence of multiple different classifications.


The International Lymphoma Study Group (I.L.S.G.) developed a consensus list of lymphoid neoplasms, which was published in 1994 as the 'Revised European-American Classification of Lymphoid Neoplasms' (R.E.A.L.). The classification is based on the principle that a classification is a list of 'real' disease entities, which are defined by a combination of morphology, immunophenotype, genetic features, and clinical features. The relative importance of each of these features varies among diseases, and there is no one 'gold standard'. In some tumors morphology is paramount, in others it is immunophenotype, a specific genetic abnormality, or clinical features. An international study of 1300 patients, supported by the San Salvatore Foundation, was conducted to determine whether the R.E.A.L. Classification could be used by expert pathologists and had clinical relevance. Since 1995, the European Association of Pathologists (EAHP) and the Society for Hematopathology (SH) have been developing a new World Health Organization (WHO) Classification of hematologic malignancies, using an updated R.E.A.L. Classification for lymphomas and applying the principles of the R.E.A.L. Classification to myeloid and histiocytic neoplasms. A Clinical Advisory Committee (CAC) was formed to ensure that the WHO Classification will be useful to clinicians.


The International Lymphoma Study showed that the R.E.A.L. Classification could be used by pathologists, with inter-observer reproducibility better than for other classifications (> 85%). Immunophenotyping was helpful in some diagnoses, but not required for many others. New entities not specifically recognized in the Working Formulation accounted for 27% of the cases. Diseases that would have been lumped together as 'low grade' or 'intermediate/high grade' in the Working Formulation showed marked differences in survival, confirming that they need to be treated as distinct entities. Clinical features such as the International Prognostic Index were also important in determining patient outcome. The WHO Clinical Advisory Committee concluded that clinical groupings of lymphoid neoplasms was neither necessary nor desirable. Patient treatment is determined by the specific type of lymphoma, with the addition of grade within the tumor type, if applicable, and clinical prognostic factors such as the International Prognostic Index (IPI).


The experience of developing the WHO Classification has produced a new and existing degree of cooperation and communication between oncologists and pathologists from around the world, which should facilitate progress in the understanding and treatment of hematologic malignancies.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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