Introduction: Cancer of unknown primary (CUP) is associated with unknown biology and dismal prognosis. Information on the primary site of origin is scant and has never been analysed. We systematically reviewed all published evidence on the CUP primary site identified by two different approaches, either autopsy or microarray gene expression profiling.
Methods: Published reports on identification of CUP primary site by autopsy or microarray-based multigene expression platforms were retrieved and analysed for year of publication, primary site, patient age, gender, histology, rate of primary identification, manifestations and metastatic deposits, microarray chip technology, training and validation sets, mathematical modelling, classification accuracy and number of classifying genes.
Results: From 1944 to 2000, a total of 884 CUP patients (66% males) underwent autopsy in 12 studies after presenting with metastatic or systemic symptoms and succumbing to their disease. A primary was identified in 644 (73%) of them, mostly in the lung (27%), pancreas (24%), hepatobiliary tree (8%), kidneys (8%), bowel, genital system and stomach, as a small focus of adenocarcinoma or poorly differentiated carcinoma. An unpredictable systemic dissemination was evident with high frequency of lung (46%), nodal (35%), bone (17%), brain (16%) and uncommon (18%) deposits. Between the 1944-1980 and the 1980-2000 series, female representation increased, 'undetermined neoplasm' diagnosis became rarer, pancreatic primaries were found less often while colonic ones were identified more frequently. Four studies using microarray technology profiled more than 500 CUP cases using classifier set of genes (ranging from 10 to 495) and reported strikingly dissimilar frequencies of assigned primary sites (lung 11.5%, pancreas 12.5%, bowel 12%, breast 15%, hepatobiliary tree 8%, kidneys 6%, genital system 9%, bladder 5%) in 75-90% of the cases.
Conclusions: Evolution in medical imaging technology, diet and lifestyle habits probably account for changing epidemiology of CUP primaries in autopsies. Discrepant assignment of primary sites by microarrays may be due to the presence of 'sanctuary sites' in autopsies, molecular misclassification and the postulated presence of a pro-metastatic genetic signature. In view of the absence of patient therapeutic or prognostic benefit with primary identification, gene expression profiling should be re-orientated towards unraveling the complex pathophysiology of metastases.