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Fam Cancer. 2004;3(2):93-100.

HNPCC and sporadic MSI-H colorectal cancer: a review of the morphological similarities and differences.

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Department of Pathology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


Morphological features may serve as diagnostically useful markers of colorectal cancer (CRC) with the microsatellite instability-high (MSI-H) phenotype. The most important of these are lymphocytic infiltration, mucin secretion and poor differentiation. These features are apparent in both sporadic MSI-H CRC and CRC occurring in the context of hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC). There is now strong evidence that that the two principal subtypes of MSI-H CRC evolve through different pathways. Sporadic MSI-H CRC orginate within serrated polyps with BRAF mutation and DNA methylation while CRC in HNPCC arise within conventional adenomas in which there is frequent mutation of APC or beta -catenin and/or K- ras. These early differences in pathogenesis translate into multiple morphological distinctions in the cancers developing through the two pathways. Lymphocytic infiltration, tumour budding (de-differentiation), and co-existing adenomas are more evident in HNPCC while mucin secretion, poor differentiation, tumour heterogeneity and glandular serration, and co-existing serrated polyps are more evident in sporadic MSI-H CRC. Sporadic MSI-H CRC are also characterized by cytoplasmic eosinophilia and nuclei that are large, round, vesicular and contain a prominent nucleolus while in HNPCC the cytological features recapitulate the basophilia and nuclear characteristics of conventional adenomas. In practice, lymphocytic infiltration is the most sensitive marker of MSI-H status in both sporadic CRC and HNPCC. The crucial distinction between HNPCC and sporadic MSI-H CRC should be achieved by means of all available data including family history, age at onset of malignancy and molecular features. There is increasing evidence that genetic factors may predispose to DNA methylation. This can result in familial clustering of MSI-H CRC in which the underlying mechanism is methylation of hMLH1 rather than germline mutation. Morphological features can assist is distinguishing such families from bona fide HNPCC families which they closely mimic.

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