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Am J Pathol. 1998 Sep;153(3):875-86.

ALK expression defines a distinct group of T/null lymphomas ("ALK lymphomas") with a wide morphological spectrum.

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Institute of Hematology, University of Perugia, Italy.


The t(2;5)(p23;q35) translocation associated with CD30-positive anaplastic large cell lymphoma results in the production of a NPM-ALK chimeric protein, consisting of the N-terminal portion of the NPM protein joined to the entire cytoplasmic domain of the neural receptor tyrosine kinase ALK. The ALK gene products were identified in paraffm sections by using a new anti-ALK (cytoplasmic portion) monoclonal antibody (ALKc) that tends to react more strongly than a previously described ALK1 antibody with the nuclei of ALK-expressing tumor cells after microwave heating in 1 mmol/L ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid buffer, pH 8.0. The ALKc monoclonal antibody reacted selectively with 60% of anaplastic large cell lymphoma cases (60 of 100), which occurred mainly in the first three decades of life and consistently displayed a T/null phenotype. This group of ALK-positive tumors showed a wide morphological spectrum including cases with features of anaplastic large cell lymphoma "common" type (75%), "lymphohistiocytic" (10%), "small cell" (8.3%), "giant cell" (3.3%), and "Hodgkin's like" (3.3%). CD30-positive large anaplastic cells expressing the ALK protein both in the cytoplasm and nucleus represented the dominant tumor population in the common, Hodgkin's-like and giant cell types, but they were present at a smaller percentage (often with a perivascular distribution) also in cases with lymphohistiocytic and small cell features. In this study, the ALKc antibody also allowed us to identify small neoplastic cells (usually CD30 negative) with nucleus-restricted ALK positivity that were, by definition, more evident in the small cell variant but were also found in cases with lymphohistiocytic, common, and "Hodgkin's-like" features. These findings, which have not been previously emphasized, strongly suggest that the neoplastic lesion (the NPM-ALK gene) must be present both in the large anaplastic and small tumor cells, and that ALK-positive lymphomas lie on a spectrum, their position being defined by the ratio of small to large neoplastic cells. Notably, about 15% of all ALK-positive lymphomas (usually of the common or giant cell variant) showed a cytoplasm-restricted ALK positivity, which suggests that the ALK gene may have fused with a partner(s) other than NPM. From a diagnostic point of view, detection of the ALK protein was useful in distinguishing anaplastic large cell lymphoma cases of lymphohistiocytic and small cell variants from reactive conditions and other peripheral T-cell lymphoma subtypes, as well as for detecting a small number of tumor cells in lymphohemopoietic tissues. In conclusion, ALK positivity appears to define a clinicopathological entity with a T/null phenotype ("ALK lymphomas"), but one that shows a wider spectrum of morphological patterns than has been appreciated in the past.

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