Combining the American Thyroid Association's Ultrasound Classification with Cytological Subcategorization Improves the Assessment of Malignancy Risk in Indeterminate Thyroid Nodules

Thyroid. 2021 Jun;31(6):922-932. doi: 10.1089/thy.2019.0575. Epub 2020 Dec 10.


Background: The risk of malignancy (RoM) of indeterminate thyroid nodules (ITNs) shows a high variability in interinstitutional cohorts. The RoM is partially associated with the cytological degree of atypia and the ultrasound (US) pattern. This study evaluated the cancer risk of ITNs by jointly considering the cytological subcategory and the American Thyroid Association (ATA)-based US risk classification. Methods: This study features a retrospective cohort from two Brazilian centers comprising 238 ITNs with confirmed outcomes. US classification, according to ATA-based guidelines, and cytological subcategorization were determined. The cytological subgroups were as follows: (1) nuclear atypia (NA) related to papillary thyroid carcinoma (PTC) but insufficient to categorize the cytology as suspicious for malignancy; (2) architectural atypia without NA (AA); (3) both architectural and nuclear atypia (ANA); (4) oncocytic pattern (OP) without NA; and (5) NA not related to PTC (NANP). NA was divided into three subgroups: nuclear size and shape, nuclear membrane appearance, and/or chromatin aspects. Results: The overall frequency of malignancy was 39.5%. Among the cytological subcategories, the highest RoM was related to the NA (43.9%) and to the ANA (43.5%), followed by AA (29.4%), and OP (9.4%). NA was positively and independently associated with cancer (odds ratio [OR]: 4.5; confidence interval [CI: 1.2-16.6]) as was the occurrence of ANA (OR 6.6 [CI 1.5-29.5]). AA and OP were not independently associated with cancer. Both ATA-based high- and intermediate-risk categories showed an independent association with cancer (OR 6.8 [CI 2.9-15.5] and OR: 2.6 [CI 1.1-5.8], respectively). ITNs with cytological findings of NA or ANA when combined with intermediate US patterns had RoM values of 47.5% and 56.7%, respectively. Both cytological subcategories, when combined with the ATA high-suspicion class reached an RoM >70%. The type of NA with the highest odds for cancer was related to the nuclear membrane (OR 11.5). Conclusions: The RoM of ITNs can reach almost 80% when both NA and ATA-based high-risk US features are present. The presence of such cytological features also increased the RoM in the ATA-based intermediate-risk US category. In addition, AA and OP were not independently related to higher cancer risk. These results strengthen the recommendations for combing cytological subcategorization and US risk classification in the workup for ITNs before the decision of a molecular testing, clinical observation, or diagnostic surgery.

Keywords: indeterminate thyroid cytology; nuclear atypia; thyroid cancer; thyroid nodules; ultrasound.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma, Follicular / diagnostic imaging
  • Adenocarcinoma, Follicular / epidemiology
  • Adenocarcinoma, Follicular / pathology
  • Adenoma, Oxyphilic / diagnostic imaging
  • Adenoma, Oxyphilic / epidemiology
  • Adenoma, Oxyphilic / pathology
  • Adult
  • Biopsy, Fine-Needle
  • Carcinoma, Neuroendocrine / diagnostic imaging
  • Carcinoma, Neuroendocrine / epidemiology
  • Carcinoma, Neuroendocrine / pathology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Assessment
  • Societies, Medical
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / diagnostic imaging
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / epidemiology*
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / pathology
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / pathology
  • Thyroid Nodule / classification
  • Thyroid Nodule / diagnostic imaging*
  • Thyroid Nodule / pathology*

Supplementary concepts

  • Thyroid cancer, Hurthle cell
  • Thyroid cancer, medullary