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Clear Cell Carcinoma of Salivary Glands Is Frequently p16 Positive

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Clear cell carcinoma (CCC) is a low-grade malignancy that commonly arises in minor salivary glands of the oropharynx and other sites. EWSR1-ATF1 gene fusions seem to be specific for this salivary neoplasm. Testing for EWSR1-ATF1 has expanded the histologic spectrum of CCC. As one important example, many CCCs have a predominantly squamous phenotype with few clear cells, a finding that can cause confusion with squamous cell carcinoma (SqCC). P16 immunohistochemical staining to determine human papillomavirus (HPV) status has become standard practice for all oropharyngeal carcinomas showing squamous differentiation. The purpose of this study was to determine whether this practice could contribute to the difficulty in distinguishing CCC from p16-positive SqCC. The authors’ surgical pathology archives were searched for cases of CCC. All cases were evaluated with p16 immunohistochemistry, high-risk HPV RNA in situ hybridization (ISH), and EWSR1 gene break-apart fluorescence ISH. Sixteen CCCs were identified. All harbored an EWSR1 rearrangement. Eleven patients were women and 5 were men. They ranged in age from 30 to 85 years (mean, 58 y). The CCCs arose in the oropharynx (tongue base or tonsil) (n=8, 50%), oral cavity (n=4, 25%), and nasopharynx (n=4, 25%). Each case demonstrated clear cells, but the proportion was highly variable (10% to 90%, mean 48%), with 7 of 16 cases having <50% clear cells. Submitted diagnoses included SqCC (n=3) and mucoepidermoid carcinoma (n=2). Of the 3 patients diagnosed with SqCC, 1 was scheduled to undergo chemoradiation, and 1 had already completed chemoradiation. All 16 CCCs demonstrated p16 staining, with the percentage of p16-positive cells ranging from ≥70% (n=2), 50% to 69% (n=3), and 10% to 49% (n=11). Staining was cytoplasmic and nuclear. All cases were negative for high-risk HPV by RNA ISH. CCCs regularly show squamous features, often lack prominent clear cell changes, frequently arise in the oropharynx, and invariably show p16 staining. These features may cause confusion with SqCC, particularly HPV-related oropharyngeal SqCC. P16 staining is not to be taken as unequivocal evidence of an HPV-related SqCC, even for carcinomas showing squamous differentiation and originating in the oropharynx. Failure to recognize this pitfall could result in overly aggressive treatment of a low-grade carcinoma.
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Keywords: EWSR1-ATF1; HPV; clear cell carcinoma; human papillomavirus; hyalinizing clear cell carcinoma; p16

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Pathology, The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore, MD, Department of Pathology, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX 2: Department of Pathology, The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore, MD 3: Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pittsburgh, PA

Publication date: March 1, 2018

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