Cytologic and immunocytochemical findings of anaplastic large cell lymphoma: analysis of ten fine-needle aspiration specimens over a 9-year period

Cancer. 2003 Feb 25;99(1):33-43. doi: 10.1002/cncr.10922.


Background: Anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL) has raised much controversy in the field of hematolymphoid pathology. Its nature is becoming better characterized with recent advances in molecular genetics. However, to the authors' knowledge, a detailed description of the fine-needle aspiration (FNA) cytology of ALCL is lacking and the application of immunocytochemical study, including immunostaining for anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) protein, to cytology samples has not been studied to date.

Methods: The authors reviewed 10 FNA specimens of ALCL from 8 patients encountered at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital and Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong over a 9-year period from early 1993 to the end of 2001. The cytologic and immunocytochemical findings (including ALK protein overexpression) of the specimens were correlated with histologic and immunohistochemical findings of surgical biopsy specimens.

Results: Six of the eight patients had ALCL of the common variant, whereas the remaining two patients had ALCL of the small cell variant. FNA specimens of ALCL of the common variant yielded many loosely dispersed "hallmark" cells that contained eccentric kidney-shaped or embryo-like nuclei, several prominent rod-shaped or angulated basophilic nucleoli, and abundant amphophilic cytoplasm. "Doughnut" cells, tumor cells with multilobated nuclei, and multinucleated giant cells with a wreath-like arrangement of nuclei occasionally were found. A small number of "plasmacytoid" tumor cells, nondescript small round tumor cells, and reactive polymorphs also was present. In contrast, "plasmacytoid" cells and nondescript small to medium-sized tumor cells represented the predominant cell population in ALCL of the small cell variant. The "plasmacytoid" appearance was exaggerated further in air-dried smears. In air-dried smears, small intracytoplasmic vacuoles and scanty azurophilic granules also were noted. On immunocytochemical study performed using the cell block materials, the majority of tumor cells demonstrated membranous and paranuclear "dot-like" positivity for CD30. The staining for epithelial membrane antigen, leukocyte common antigen, and T-cell markers was variable. Positive staining for ALK protein was demonstrated beautifully in two of the cases.

Conclusions: Despite the wide morphologic spectrum of ALCL, a definitive diagnosis on the basis of FNA cytology is possible on careful interpretation of the cytologic features and a high index of suspicion. The cytologic diagnosis can be confirmed further with proper application of immunostaining to cell block sections. Immunocytochemical study for ALK protein, which provides useful prognostic information, also can be demonstrated satisfactorily using cytology samples.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase
  • Biopsy, Needle
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Lymphoma, Large B-Cell, Diffuse / immunology
  • Lymphoma, Large B-Cell, Diffuse / pathology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / analysis*
  • Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / immunology
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases
  • Retrospective Studies


  • ALK protein, human
  • Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase
  • Protein-Tyrosine Kinases
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases