Morphological subtypes of ovarian carcinoma: a review with emphasis on new developments and pathogenesis

Pathology. 2011 Aug;43(5):420-32. doi: 10.1097/PAT.0b013e328348a6e7.


Ovarian carcinomas comprise a heterogeneous group of neoplasms, the four most common subtypes being serous, endometrioid, clear cell and mucinous. In recent years, our understanding of the underlying pathogenesis and initiating molecular events in the different tumour subtypes has greatly increased, and although ovarian carcinoma is often considered clinically as one disease, there is now a much greater realisation that the various subtypes have a different natural behaviour and prognosis. At present, adjuvant therapy is mainly dependent upon tumour stage and grade rather than type; however, this is likely to change in the future with the development of new chemotherapeutic agents and targeted therapies and clinical trials are necessary to evaluate the efficacy of different agents in clear cell, mucinous and low grade serous carcinomas, neoplasms which are considered relatively resistant to traditional chemotherapeutic regimes. In this review, the major subtypes of ovarian carcinoma are discussed. It is now firmly established that there are two distinct types of ovarian serous carcinoma, low grade and high grade, the former being much less common and arising in many cases from a serous borderline tumour. Low grade and high grade serous carcinoma represent two distinct tumour types with a different underlying pathogenesis rather than low grade and high grade variants of the same neoplasm. Both are usually advanced stage (stage III or IV) at diagnosis. B-raf and k-ras mutations are important molecular events in low grade serous carcinomas while high grade serous carcinomas are almost always associated with TP53 mutation. There is now emerging and compelling evidence that many high grade serous carcinomas (by far the most common subtype of ovarian carcinoma) actually arise from the epithelium of the distal fallopian tube. Future studies regarding the initiating molecular events in the development of this aggressive neoplasm should concentrate on this site. Primary ovarian mucinous carcinomas are uncommon, almost always unilateral and stage I, and largely of so-called intestinal or enteric type. Most arise in a stepwise manner from a pre-existing mucinous cystadenoma and mucinous borderline tumour. Endometrioid and clear cell carcinomas typically present as low stage neoplasms and in many, or most, cases arise from endometriosis; the former are usually well differentiated and there is now evidence that the majority of neoplasms reported in the past as high grade endometrioid carcinoma are of serous type. WT1 is useful in this regard since it is a relatively specific marker of a serous phenotype. It is recommended that different subtypes of ovarian carcinoma are graded using different systems rather than employing a universal grading system.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma, Clear Cell / classification
  • Adenocarcinoma, Clear Cell / metabolism
  • Adenocarcinoma, Clear Cell / pathology*
  • Adenocarcinoma, Mucinous / classification
  • Adenocarcinoma, Mucinous / metabolism
  • Adenocarcinoma, Mucinous / secondary*
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Endometrioid / classification
  • Carcinoma, Endometrioid / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Endometrioid / pathology*
  • Cystadenocarcinoma, Serous / classification
  • Cystadenocarcinoma, Serous / metabolism
  • Cystadenocarcinoma, Serous / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / classification
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / pathology*


  • Biomarkers, Tumor