Metastatic adenocarcinoma of unknown primary origin

Hum Pathol. 1998 Dec;29(12):1393-402. doi: 10.1016/s0046-8177(98)90007-7.


Adenocarcinomas account for up to 60% of all metastatic neoplasms of unknown primary origin. In general, adenocarcinomas are the most difficult metastatic tumor to accurately identify the primary site. Some metastatic adenocarcinomas have distinctive histological features that allow for their site determination (eg, colonic adenocarcinoma, bronchioloalveolar cell carcinoma), although the majority of metastatic adenocarcinomas have histological features that are not distinctive enough to allow for a specific diagnosis of their origin. For this reason, electron microscopy and immunohistochemistry have been used to help identify the exact type (origin) of metastatic adenocarcinomas. Relatively specific ultrastructural features used to diagnose metastatic adenocarcinomas of unknown primary origin include tubular myelin, intranuclear surfactant apoprotein tubular inclusions, Clara cell granules, uniform short microvilli with filamentous cores and core rootlets, Langerhans cells associated with neoplastic cells, cytoplasmic hyaline globules, lipid droplets, glycogen, and cytoplasmic crystals. Only a few of these ultrastructural features are absolutely specific. Relatively specific immunohistochemical tests used to diagnose metastatic adenocarcinomas of unknown primary origin include prostate-specific antigen, thyroglobulin, estrogen and progesterone receptor proteins, thyroid transcription factor-I, and surfactant apoproteins. Of these, prostate-specific antigen and thyroglobulin are the most specific. The purpose of this article is to discuss the use of electron microscopy and immunohistochemistry in the site-specific diagnosis of metastatic adenocarcinomas of unknown primary origin.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma / chemistry
  • Adenocarcinoma / secondary*
  • Adenocarcinoma / ultrastructure
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / chemistry
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunoenzyme Techniques
  • Keratins / analysis
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / chemistry
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / diagnosis*
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / ultrastructure


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Keratins