A Critical Assessment of Diagnostic Criteria for the Tall Cell Subtype of Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma-How Much? How Tall? And When Is It Relevant?

Endocr Pathol. 2023 Dec;34(4):461-470. doi: 10.1007/s12022-023-09788-8. Epub 2023 Oct 21.


Tall cell papillary thyroid carcinoma (TC-PTC) is considered adverse histology. However, previous studies are confounded by inconsistent criteria and strong associations with other adverse features. It is therefore still unclear if TC-PTC represents an independent prognostic factor in multivariate analysis and, if it does, what criteria should be employed for the diagnosis. We retrospectively reviewed 487 PTCs from our institution (where we have historically avoided the prospective diagnosis of TC-PTC) for both the height of tall cells (that is if the cells were two, or three, times as tall as wide) and the percentage of tall cells. On univariate analysis, there was significantly better disease free survival (DFS) in PTCs with no significant tall cell component (< 30%) compared to PTCs with cells two times tall as wide (p = 0.005). The proportion of tall cells (30-50% and > 50%) was significantly associated with DFS (p = 0.012). In a multivariate model including age, size, vascular space invasion, and lymph node metastasis, the current WHO tall cell criteria, met by 7.8% of PTCs, lacked statistical significance for DFS (p = 0.519). However, in the subset of tumours otherwise similar to the American Thyroid Association (ATA) guidelines low-risk category, WHO TC-PTC demonstrated a highly significant reduction in DFS (p = 0.004). In contrast, in intermediate to high-risk tumours, TC-PTC by WHO criteria lacked statistical significance (p = 0.384). We conclude that it may be simplistic to think of tall cell features as being present or absent, as both the height of the cells (two times versus three times) and the percentage of cells that are tall have different clinical significances in different contexts. Most importantly, the primary clinical significance of TC-PTC is restricted to PTCs that are otherwise low risk by ATA guidelines.

Keywords: Papillary thyroid carcinoma; Tall cell subtype; Thyroid carcinoma.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Prognosis
  • Prospective Studies
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / diagnosis
  • Thyroid Cancer, Papillary / pathology
  • Thyroid Neoplasms* / pathology