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Vacuolated cell pattern of pancreatobiliary adenocarcinoma: a clinicopathological analysis of 24 cases of a poorly recognized distinctive morphologic variant important in the differential diagnosis


Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDCA) is characterized by well-defined tubular units in the vast majority of the cases; however, variations in this theme do occur. It is important to recognize the morphologic spectrum of PDCA to avoid misdiagnosis especially in small specimens and also in metastatic foci. Here, we document a morphologic variant of PDCA that is characterized by a distinctive pattern of infiltrating cribriform nests in a distinctive “microcystic” or “secretory” pattern. Twenty-four cases of PDCA have been identified in a review of 505 cases diagnosed with PDCA. Histologically, this pattern was characterized by infiltrating nests of tumor cells with large vacuoles and “signet-ring” like appearance imparting a cribriform growth pattern. The vacuoles were one to five cells in size, often merging to form multilocular spaces separated by a thin rim of cell membrane. Many of these spaces contained CA19.9 positive granular secretory material. The nuclei were often pushed to the periphery and compressed in a pattern resembling adipocytes, although the nuclei were often densely hyperchromatic and displayed significant atypia. Especially in biopsies from the peripancreatic fat and peritoneum, these neoplastic cells had been misdiagnosed as degenerating adipocytes, and in the lymph nodes, they had been misinterpreted as lipogranulomas. Clinical findings of the patients were similar to that of conventional PDCA, except higher incidence of history of smoking (83% vs. 60%; p = 0.034). In conclusion, vacuolated cell adenocarcinoma is a distinct morphologic variant of PDCA, and the presence of this peculiar pattern in a metastatic site, although not specific, should raise the suspicion of a PDCA.

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This study is supported in part by the National Cancer Institute Specialized Program in Research Excellence (SPORE) CA101936 in Pancreas Cancer (PAR-02-068) and in part by the Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Clinicians and Scientists Program.

Conflict of interest

The authors have no conflict of interest.

Author information

Correspondence to Volkan N. Adsay.

Additional information

This study was presented in part at the annual meeting of the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology in Atlanta, GA in 2000.

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Dursun, N., Feng, J., Basturk, O. et al. Vacuolated cell pattern of pancreatobiliary adenocarcinoma: a clinicopathological analysis of 24 cases of a poorly recognized distinctive morphologic variant important in the differential diagnosis. Virchows Arch 457, 643–649 (2010).

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  • Pancreas
  • Pancreatobiliary
  • Ductal
  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Vacuolated
  • Lipoid
  • Signet ring
  • Cribriform