Pathology of melanocytic lesions: new, controversial, and clinically important issues

J Surg Oncol. 2004 Jul 1;86(4):200-11. doi: 10.1002/jso.20083.


Patients with primary cutaneous melanocytic lesions rely not only on the knowledge, skills, and experience of their treating clinician but also on the fundamentally important input of their pathologist for accurate diagnosis and appropriate management. Free and precise communication between pathologists and surgeons is important and undoubtedly improves patient care, particularly when managing difficult or complicated cases. To provide both patient and surgeon with the necessary information they require to make the most appropriate decisions, the pathology report should include all pathologic factors that are important in determining the patient's prognosis and management. Use of a synoptic format for pathology reporting of melanomas can facilitate this. Recent studies have established that the dermal mitotic rate of a primary cutaneous melanoma is a major prognostic determinant, and have shown that its assessment and that of other important histopathologic prognostic variables are reproducible between pathologists. Sentinel node (SN) biopsy has provided a minimally invasive procedure that can accurately predict the regional node status of melanoma patients. It is well demonstrated that the use of immunohistochemical stains assists in the detection of melanoma micrometastases in SNs, although it remains unclear which is the optimal pathologic protocol for SN evaluation and whether there is a role for reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) in SN assessment. False negative SN biopsies may occur as a result of errors in lymphatic mapping or sentinel lymphadenectomy, or because of a deficiency in the process of histopathologic evaluation. Recent studies have shown that the likelihood of non-SN involvement when the SN is positive correlates mostly with the extent of SN involvement, in particular the tumor penetrative depth (defined as the maximum distance of melanoma cells from the inner margin of the SN capsule). It appears that assessment of the micromorphometric features of positive SNs may be useful in predicting which patients have a low probability of having metastatic tumor in non-SNs, and therefore in selecting patients who potentially may be spared a completion lymph node dissection. It is likely that future advances in our understanding of the molecular biology of melanoma will provide new insights into tumor classification, improve diagnostic accuracy and prognostic ability, and lead to the development of more precisely targeted therapies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biopsy, Fine-Needle
  • Cell Division
  • Humans
  • Lymph Node Excision
  • Lymph Nodes / pathology*
  • Lymphatic Metastasis
  • Melanoma / diagnosis
  • Melanoma / pathology*
  • Melanoma / surgery
  • Mitotic Index
  • Prognosis
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy*
  • Skin / pathology*
  • Skin Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Skin Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Skin Neoplasms / surgery