Cytokeratin 20 immunoreactivity distinguishes Merkel cell (primary cutaneous neuroendocrine) carcinomas and salivary gland small cell carcinomas from small cell carcinomas of various sites

Am J Surg Pathol. 1997 Feb;21(2):226-34. doi: 10.1097/00000478-199702000-00014.


Cytokeratin 20 (CK20) is a low-molecular-weight cytokeratin (CK) that shows restricted expression in the gastrointestinal epithelium, urothelium, and Merkel cell. Recent studies have suggested that since Merkel cell (primary cutaneous neuroendocrine) carcinomas are consistently CK20-positive, this feature may help to distinguish it from pulmonary small cell carcinomas. However, only limited numbers of these tumors have been studied, and the pattern of CK20 expression in other small cell carcinomas has not been established. Therefore, we studied CK20 expression in small cell carcinomas from a wide variety of sites. Immunohistochemical study was performed on paraffin sections using CK20 antibody, coupled with antigen retrieval by pressure cooking in citrate buffer. The cases included 34 Merkel cell carcinomas and 89 small cell carcinomas from various sites (pulmonary, 37; gastrointestinal tract, nine; pharynx and tongue, two; sinonasal tract, three; salivary gland, five; larynx, nine; breast, two; thymus, three; uterine cervix and corpus, 12, prostate, three; urinary bladder, two; kidney, one; pancreas, one). In addition, all cases were immunostained with pan-CK (MNF-116) and low-molecular-weight CK (CAM5.2) antibodies to ascertain their epithelial nature. With the exception of one case, all Merkel cell carcinomas were CK20-positive; and 30 of the 33 cases showed a punctate pattern. Almost 100% of tumor cells were positive, except for two cases that showed staining of 10% and 30% of tumor cells, respectively. Among the other small cell carcinomas, only five cases were CK20-positive, including one of 37 pulmonary (40% cells positive in punctate pattern), one of 11 cervical (10% cells positive), and three of five salivary gland (100% cells positive). We conclude that CK20-positivity in a small cell carcinoma of uncertain origin strongly predicts a diagnosis of Merkel cell carcinoma, especially if the majority of tumor cells are positive. A negative CK20 reaction can practically rule out Merkel cell carcinoma, provided that an effective antigen retrieval technique is used and appropriate staining is obtained with other cytokeratin antibodies. The frequent CK20 positivity observed in salivary gland small cell carcinomas in this series suggests that at least some of them may be more closely related biologically to Merkel cell carcinoma than to pulmonary-type small cell carcinoma. This may explain why they are far less clinically aggressive than other small cell carcinomas.

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / analysis*
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell / chemistry
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell / diagnosis*
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / chemistry
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / diagnosis*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Intermediate Filament Proteins / analysis*
  • Keratin-20
  • Parotid Gland / chemistry
  • Parotid Gland / pathology
  • Salivary Gland Neoplasms / chemistry
  • Salivary Gland Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Skin Neoplasms / chemistry
  • Skin Neoplasms / diagnosis*


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Intermediate Filament Proteins
  • KRT20 protein, human
  • Keratin-20