Coexisting well-differentiated and anaplastic thyroid carcinoma in the same primary resection specimen: immunophenotypic and genetic comparison of the two components in a consecutive series of 13 cases and a review of the literature

Virchows Arch. 2021 Feb;478(2):265-281. doi: 10.1007/s00428-020-02891-9. Epub 2020 Jul 18.


Anaplastic carcinoma (AC) is a rare but highly aggressive form of thyroid cancer. It mostly arises on a background of pre-existing well-differentiated cancer (WDC); however, whether it evolves directly from a WDC or originates as a second independent neoplasm is still to be defined. To obtain further insights into these mechanisms, we performed morphological, immunohistochemical, and next-generation sequencing analyses to compare AC and its associated WDC in a subset of 13 surgically resected specimens. Histologically, most WDC were of aggressive subtypes. Papillary carcinomas (8 cases; 62%) were tall cell (4/8), columnar (1/8), classic with hobnail features (1/8), classic and follicular variant in the remaining 2 cases; Hürthle cell and follicular carcinomas were present in 5 (38%) and in 1 (8%) patient, respectively. One patient harbored both a PTC, follicular variant, and a Hürthle cell carcinoma. We did not find any correlation between a histotype of WDC and a specific anaplastic growth pattern. Immunohistochemically, ACs retained pankeratin/PAX8 expression but with significantly lower levels than WDCs, and they tended to lose TTF1 expression, as can be expected within a dedifferentiation process. In addition, AC showed a more frequent expression of p63 and/or SMA, a mutated pattern of p53, and an abnormal expression of p16. Genetic analysis showed that the number of mutations was higher in AC than in the associated WDC, confirming a role of the progressive accumulation of genetic damage in this transition. We observed that mutations found in the WDCs were consistently identified in the anaplastic counterparts, further supporting the hypothesis of a developmental link.

Keywords: Anaplastic carcinoma; Immunohistochemistry; Molecular biology; Thyroid; Well-differentiated carcinoma.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biomarkers, Tumor* / analysis
  • Biomarkers, Tumor* / genetics
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry*
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Molecular Diagnostic Techniques*
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasms, Complex and Mixed* / chemistry
  • Neoplasms, Complex and Mixed* / genetics
  • Neoplasms, Complex and Mixed* / pathology
  • Phenotype
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic* / chemistry
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic* / genetics
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic* / pathology
  • Thyroid Carcinoma, Anaplastic* / surgery
  • Thyroid Neoplasms* / chemistry
  • Thyroid Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Thyroid Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Thyroid Neoplasms* / surgery


  • Biomarkers, Tumor