Small cell lung cancer transformation: From pathogenesis to treatment

Semin Cancer Biol. 2022 Nov;86(Pt 2):595-606. doi: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2022.03.006. Epub 2022 Mar 8.


Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is a type of neuroendocrine tumor with high malignancy and poor prognosis. Besides the de novo SCLC, there is transformed SCLC, which has similar characteristics of pathological morphology, molecular characteristics, clinical manifestations and drug sensitivity. However, de novo SCLC and transformed SCLC have different pathogenesis and tumor microenvironment. SCLC transformation is one of the mechanisms of resistance to chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy in NSCLC. Two hypotheses have been used to explain the pathogenesis of SCLC transformation. Although SCLC transformation is not common in clinical practice, it has been repeatedly identified in many small patient series and case reports. It usually occurs in epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutant lung adenocarcinoma after treatment with tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs). SCLC transformation can also occur in anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK)-positive lung cancer after treatment with ALK inhibitors and in wild-type EGFR or ALK NSCLC treated with immunotherapy. Chemotherapy was previously used to treat transformed SCLC, yet it is associated with an unsatisfactory prognosis. We comprehensively review the advancements in transformed SCLC, including clinical and pathological characteristics, and the potential effective treatment after SCLC transformation, aiming to give a better understanding of transformed SCLC and provide support for clinical uses.

Keywords: Non-small cell lung cancer; Small cell lung cancer; Transformation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung* / pathology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / genetics
  • ErbB Receptors / genetics
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms* / etiology
  • Lung Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Mutation
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Small Cell Lung Carcinoma* / genetics
  • Small Cell Lung Carcinoma* / therapy
  • Tumor Microenvironment / genetics


  • ErbB Receptors
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors