Background: Tumor necrosis and cell death are common features of retinoblastoma. In non-malignant retinal cells after ischemia, as well as in many non-retinal tumors, cell death occurs in at least two ways. We investigated whether similar patterns of cell death could be demonstrated in retinoblastoma cells.
Methods: Nine globes with retinoblastoma from eight patients were studied. Paraffin sections stained with HE or the Feulgen method were examined by light microscopy. Several samples from each tumor were selected for electron microscopic study.
Results: Ultrastructurally, two main types of cell death were identified. Type I was characterized by progressive lysis of the cytoplasm and karyoplasm. Nuclear chromatin either dissolved or was transformed into compact clumps becoming extracellular dense bodies. Phagocytosis of cell remnants by neighboring tumor cells, or occasional macrophages, was common. Type II was characterized by progressive condensation and shrinkage of the cytoplasm and nucleus. Type II was subdivided in two forms distinguished mainly by characteristic patchy vs crescentic chromatin condensation. Small parts of condensed cytoplasm were engulfed by neighboring tumor cells. Compact cell remnants then underwent either phagocytosis by neighboring retinoblastoma cells or progressive intercellular disaggregation.
Conclusion: Retinoblastoma cells may undergo at least two types of cell death. Type I fits the definition of necrosis, while both forms of type II exhibited several features consistent with apoptosis. The types of cell death observed in retinoblastoma exhibited similarities to patterns observed in ischemic retina, as well as in other malignant tumors. Type II cell death (apoptosis) may play a role in limiting tumor growth.