Overview of the 2022 WHO Classification of Adrenal Cortical Tumors

Endocr Pathol. 2022 Mar;33(1):155-196. doi: 10.1007/s12022-022-09710-8. Epub 2022 Mar 14.


The new WHO classification of adrenal cortical proliferations reflects translational advances in the fields of endocrine pathology, oncology and molecular biology. By adopting a question-answer framework, this review highlights advances in knowledge of histological features, ancillary studies, and associated genetic findings that increase the understanding of the adrenal cortex pathologies that are now reflected in the 2022 WHO classification. The pathological correlates of adrenal cortical proliferations include diffuse adrenal cortical hyperplasia, adrenal cortical nodular disease, adrenal cortical adenomas and adrenal cortical carcinomas. Understanding germline susceptibility and the clonal-neoplastic nature of individual adrenal cortical nodules in primary bilateral macronodular adrenal cortical disease, and recognition of the clonal-neoplastic nature of incidentally discovered non-functional subcentimeter benign adrenal cortical nodules has led to redefining the spectrum of adrenal cortical nodular disease. As a consequence, the most significant nomenclature change in the field of adrenal cortical pathology involves the refined classification of adrenal cortical nodular disease which now includes (a) sporadic nodular adrenocortical disease, (b) bilateral micronodular adrenal cortical disease, and (c) bilateral macronodular adrenal cortical disease (formerly known primary bilateral macronodular adrenal cortical hyperplasia). This group of clinicopathological entities are reflected in functional adrenal cortical pathologies. Aldosterone producing cortical lesions can be unifocal or multifocal, and may be bilateral with no imaging-detected nodule(s). Furthermore, not all grossly or radiologically identified adrenal cortical lesions may be the source of aldosterone excess. For this reason, the new WHO classification endorses the nomenclature of the HISTALDO classification which uses CYP11B2 immunohistochemistry to identify functional sites of aldosterone production to help predict the risk of bilateral disease in primary aldosteronism. Adrenal cortical carcinomas are subtyped based on their morphological features to include conventional, oncocytic, myxoid, and sarcomatoid subtypes. Although the classic histopathologic criteria for diagnosing adrenal cortical carcinomas have not changed, the 2022 WHO classification underscores the diagnostic and prognostic impact of angioinvasion (vascular invasion) in these tumors. Microscopic angioinvasion is defined as tumor cells invading through a vessel wall and forming a thrombus/fibrin-tumor complex or intravascular tumor cells admixed with platelet thrombus/fibrin. In addition to well-established Weiss and modified Weiss scoring systems, the new WHO classification also expands on the use of other multiparameter diagnostic algorithms (reticulin algorithm, Lin-Weiss-Bisceglia system, and Helsinki scoring system) to assist the workup of adrenal cortical neoplasms in adults. Accordingly, conventional carcinomas can be assessed using all multiparameter diagnostic schemes, whereas oncocytic neoplasms can be assessed using the Lin-Weiss-Bisceglia system, reticulin algorithm and Helsinki scoring system. Pediatric adrenal cortical neoplasms are assessed using the Wieneke system. Most adult adrenal cortical carcinomas show > 5 mitoses per 10 mm2 and > 5% Ki67. The 2022 WHO classification places an emphasis on an accurate assessment of tumor proliferation rate using both the mitotic count (mitoses per 10 mm2) and Ki67 labeling index which play an essential role in the dynamic risk stratification of affected patients. Low grade carcinomas have mitotic rate of ≤ 20 mitoses per 10 mm2, whereas high-grade carcinomas show > 20 mitoses per 10 mm2. Ki67-based tumor grading has not been endorsed in the new WHO classification, since the proliferation indices are continuous variables rather than being static thresholds in tumor biology. This new WHO classification emphasizes the role of diagnostic and predictive biomarkers in the workup of adrenal cortical neoplasms. Confirmation of the adrenal cortical origin of a tumor remains a critical requirement when dealing with non-functional lesions in the adrenal gland which may be mistaken for a primary adrenal cortical neoplasm. While SF1 is the most reliable biomarker in the confirmation of adrenal cortical origin, paranuclear IGF2 expression is a useful biomarker in the distinction of malignancy in adrenal cortical neoplasms. In addition to adrenal myelolipoma, the new classification of adrenal cortical tumors has introduced new sections including adrenal ectopia, based on the potential role of such ectopic tissue as a possible source of neoplastic proliferations as well as a potential mimicker of metastatic disease. Adrenal cysts are also discussed in the new classification as they may simulate primary cystic adrenal neoplasms or even adrenal cortical carcinomas in the setting of an adrenal pseudocyst.

Keywords: Adrenal cortical adenoma; Adrenal cortical carcinoma; Adrenal cortical hyperplasia; Adrenal cortical nodular disease; Adrenal incidentaloma; Biomarkers; Cushing syndrome; IGF2; Lynch syndrome; Primary aldosteronism; Primary bilateral macronodular adrenal cortical hyperplasia; Reticulin algorithm; Reticulin histochemistry; Virilization and feminization; WHO classification.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms*
  • Adrenocortical Adenoma* / pathology
  • Adrenocortical Carcinoma* / pathology
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Humans
  • World Health Organization