Gastrointestinal stromal tumors: review on morphology, molecular pathology, prognosis, and differential diagnosis

Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2006 Oct;130(10):1466-78. doi: 10.5858/2006-130-1466-GSTROM.


Context: Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) are specific, generally Kit (CD117)-positive, mesenchymal tumors of the gastrointestinal tract encompassing a majority of tumors previously considered gastrointestinal smooth muscle tumors. They are believed to originate from interstitial cells of Cajal or related stem cells.

Objective: To review current clinicopathologically relevant information on GIST.

Data sources: Literature in Medline and authors' own experience.

Conclusions: GISTs usually occur in older adults (median age 55-60 years) and rarely in children in the second decade (<1%) throughout the gastrointestinal tract: 60% in stomach, 35% in small intestine, and less than 5% in rectum, esophagus, omentum, and mesentery; most GISTs in the latter 2 sites are metastatic. Five percent of GISTs occur in patients with neurofibromatosis type 1 syndrome (multiple small intestinal tumors) and in Carney triad (gastric epithelioid GISTs in young females). Familial GISTs occur in patients with inheritable germline Kit or platelet-derived growth factor receptor alpha (PDGFRA) mutations. Histologically GISTs vary from spindle cell tumors to epithelioid and pleomorphic tumors. Most GISTs (95%) express Kit (CD117), CD34 (70%), and heavy caldesmon (80%), whereas 25% are positive for smooth muscle actin and less than 5% for desmin. Tumor size and mitotic activity are best predictive prognostic features; small intestinal tumors behave more aggressively than gastric tumors with similar parameters. Mutually exclusive gain-of-function Kit or PDGFRA mutations occur in a majority of GISTs representing in-frame deletions, point mutations, duplications and insertions. Mutations in Kit juxtamembrane domain (exon 11) are the most common in GISTs of all sites, whereas rare Kit extracellular domain (exon 9) Ala502-Tyr503 duplication is specific for intestinal GISTs. Mutations in PDGFRA have been identified in juxtamembrane (exon 12) and tyrosine kinase domains (exons 14 and 18), nearly exclusively in gastric GISTs, mostly in epithelioid variants. Some Kit and PDGFRA mutations have a prognostic value. Kit/PDGFRA tyrosine kinase inhibitor imatinib has been successfully used in the treatment of metastatic GISTs for more than 5 years. However, primary and acquired secondary resistance linked to certain types of Kit and PDGFRA mutations is limiting long-term success necessitating the use of alternative treatments.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors / complications
  • Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors / epidemiology
  • Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors / genetics*
  • Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Incidence
  • Intestinal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Intestine, Small
  • Mutation
  • Prognosis
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-kit / genetics
  • Receptor, Platelet-Derived Growth Factor alpha / genetics
  • Stomach Neoplasms / pathology
  • Syndrome


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-kit
  • Receptor, Platelet-Derived Growth Factor alpha