Poorly Differentiated Carcinoma of the Thyroid Gland: Current Status and Future Prospects

Thyroid. 2019 Mar;29(3):311-321. doi: 10.1089/thy.2018.0509.


Background: Poorly differentiated thyroid cancer (PDTC) is a rare but clinically highly significant entity because it accounts for most fatalities from non-anaplastic follicular cell-derived thyroid cancer. Due to the relative rarity of the disease and heterogeneous diagnostic criteria, studies on PDTC have been limited. In light of the evolution of ultra-deep next-generation sequencing technologies and through correlation of clinicopathologic and genomic characteristics of PDTC, an improved understanding of the biology of PDTC has been facilitated. Here, the diagnostic criteria, clinicopathologic characteristics, management, and outcomes in PDTC, as well as genomic drivers in PDTC reported in recent next-generation sequencing studies, are reviewed. In addition, future prospects in improving the outcomes in PDTC patients are reviewed.

Summary: PDTC patients tend to present with adverse clinicopathologic characteristics: older age, male predominance, advanced locoregional disease, and distant metastases. Surgery with clearance of all gross disease can achieve satisfactory locoregional control. However, the majority of PDTC patients die of distant disease. Five-year disease-specific survival for PDTC patients has been reported at 66%. On multivariate analysis, reported predictors of poor survival in PDTC patients have been older age (>45 years), T4a pathological stage, extrathyroidal extension, high mitotic rate, tumor necrosis, and distant metastasis at presentation. BRAFV600E or RAS mutations (27% and 24% of cases, respectively) remain mutually exclusive main drivers in PDTC. TERT promoter mutations represent the most common alteration in PDTC (40%). Mutation in translation initiation factor EIF1AX (11%) and tumor suppressor TP53 (16%) have also been reported in PDTC. High rates of novel mutations (MED12 and RBM10) have been reported in fatal PDTC (15% and 12%, respectively). Chromosome 1q gains represent the most common arm-level alterations in PDTC, and those patients show worse survival rates. Chromosome 22q losses are also found in PDTC and show strong association with RAS mutation.

Conclusions: These new insights into the clinicopathologic and molecular characteristics of PDTC, together with further advancement in ultra-deep sequencing technologies, will be conducive in narrowing the focus in order to develop novel targeted therapies and improve the outcomes in PDTC patients.

Keywords: next-generation sequencing; outcomes; poorly differentiated; presentation; thyroid cancer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Disease-Free Survival
  • Female
  • Genomics
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / diagnosis*
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / epidemiology
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / genetics
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / pathology*
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic / diagnosis*
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic / epidemiology
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic / genetics
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic / pathology*
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / genetics
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • ras Proteins / genetics


  • ras Proteins