Diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma

HPB (Oxford). 2008;10(2):87-93. doi: 10.1080/13651820801992716.


Cholangiocarcinoma is suspected based on signs of biliary obstruction, abnormal liver function tests, elevated tumor markers (carbohydrate antigen 19-9 and carcinoembryonic antigen), and ultrasonography showing a bile stricture or a mass, especially in intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) is performed for the diagnosis and staging of cholangiocarcinomas. However, differentiation of an intraductal cholangiocarcinoma from a hypovascular metastasis is limited at imaging. Therefore, reasonable exclusion of an extrahepatic primary tumor should be performed. Differentiating between benign and malignant bile duct stricture is also difficult, except when metastases are observed. The sensitivity of fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography is limited in small, infiltrative, and mucinous cholangiocarcinomas. When the diagnosis of a biliary stenosis remains indeterminate at MRI or CT, endoscopic imaging (endoscopic or intraductal ultrasound, cholangioscopy, or optical coherence tomography) and tissue sampling should be carried out. Tissue sampling has a high specificity for diagnosing malignant biliary strictures, but sensitivity is low. The diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma is particularly challenging in patients with primary sclerosing cholangitis. These patients should be followed with yearly tumor markers, CT, or MRI. In the case of dominant stricture, histological or cytological confirmation of cholangiocarcinoma should be obtained. More studies are needed to compare the accuracy of the various imaging methods, especially the new intraductal methods, and the imaging features of malignancy should be standardized.