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Original Articles

Prognostic Implication of Histopathologic Indicators in Salivary Duct Carcinoma

Proposal of a Novel Histologic Risk Stratification Model

Nakaguro, Masato MD, PhD*; Sato, Yukiko DDS, PhD; Tada, Yuichiro MD, PhD; Kawakita, Daisuke MD, PhD§; Hirai, Hideaki MD, PhD; Urano, Makoto MD, PhD; Shimura, Tomotaka MD, PhD#; Tsukahara, Kiyoaki MD, PhD**; Kano, Satoshi MD, PhD††; Ozawa, Hiroyuki MD, PhD‡‡; Okami, Kenji MD, PhD§§; Sato, Yuichiro MD, PhD∥∥; Fushimi, Chihiro DDS, PhD; Shimizu, Akira MD, PhD**; Takase, Soichiro MD, PhD**; Okada, Takuro MD, PhD**; Sato, Hiroki MD, PhD**; Imanishi, Yorihisa MD, PhD‡‡; Otsuka, Kuninori MD, PhD‡‡; Watanabe, Yoshihiro MD, PhD‡‡; Sakai, Akihiro MD, PhD§§; Ebisumoto, Koji MD, PhD§§; Togashi, Takafumi MD, PhD∥∥; Ueki, Yushi MD, PhD∥∥; Ota, Hisayuki MD, PhD∥∥; Saigusa, Natsuki DDS; Takahashi, Hideaki MD, PhD¶¶; Ando, Mizuo MD, PhD##; Hanazawa, Toyoyuki MD, PhD***; Nagao, Toshitaka MD, PhD

Author Information
The American Journal of Surgical Pathology: April 2020 - Volume 44 - Issue 4 - p 526-535
doi: 10.1097/PAS.0000000000001413


Salivary duct carcinoma (SDC) is one of the most aggressive malignancies affecting the salivary glands and histologically resembles high-grade mammary ductal carcinoma.1 Although the majority of SDCs behave in a high-grade fashion with frequent lymph nodal and distant metastases and a dismal prognosis, relatively wide variation in their biological behavior and histologic appearances is recognized.2–4

In addition to surgical resection followed by radiotherapy and conventional chemotherapy, recent advances in molecular-targeted therapy have broadened the therapeutic strategies, with approaches such as trastuzumab targeting the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) or combined androgen blockade targeting androgen receptor.4–8 However, molecular-targeted therapy has not yet been provided worldwide as a standard treatment option, and drug resistance is a perplexing problem that remains to be overcome. Given that accurate risk stratification of patients can help form the basis for treatment decisions, it remains imperative to identify clinical as well as pathologic features that predict the biological behavior of the tumor and the patients’ prognosis.

In breast ductal carcinoma, a histologic grading scheme known as the Nottingham-Bloom-Richardson histologic grading system (Nottingham histologic grade) consisting of 3 histologic factors (nuclear atypia and pleomorphism, mitosis, and tubule formation) is widely used and routinely evaluated in clinical pathology practice.9–11 This histologic grade or risk stratification model is useful for determining the aggressiveness of a tumor and is considered to be a powerful prognosticator, thus playing a key role in guiding clinical decision-making.12 However, a histologic risk stratification model of SDC has not yet been developed, and a limited number of studies have evaluated the prognostic significance of several histologic parameters individually.4,13

In the present study, we evaluated detailed histopathologic indicators in 151 SDC cases associated with the overall survival (OS) and progression-free survival (PFS). Furthermore, based on these results, we attempted to propose a concise and practical histologic risk stratification model of SDC, that can aid in determining the prognosis and the most suitable treatment for each case.


Patient Selection

The present study was approved by the Institutional Ethics Review Board of the ethics committee of our facilities.

The patients of this cohort have been included in previous studies.14,15 This study comprised 151 patients with SDC diagnosed and treated at 7 institutions between 1992 and 2014, except for patients who underwent anti-HER2 or antiandrogen receptor therapy as an initial treatment. All tumors were confirmed to have been diagnosed correctly by 3 expert pathologists (T.N., Y.S., and M.N.) according to the rigorous histomorphologic criteria for SDC.1 Other entities, including the high-grade transformation of various carcinomas, adenocarcinoma, not otherwise specified, high-grade mucoepidermoid carcinoma, and low-grade intraductal carcinoma (previously called as “low-grade SDC”), were carefully eliminated from this study.3

The Evaluation of Histologic Factors

All resected specimens were formalin-fixed, sectioned, and stained with hematoxylin and eosin (H&E). Multistep sections from the whole tumor, including the largest cross-section, were subjected to a histologic review. Each histologic feature was evaluated by 4 pathologists (Y.S., M.N., T.N., and M.U.) independently, and any discrepant results were discussed by an expert panel to achieve consensus. The pathologists were blinded to clinical data at the time of histologic evaluation.

The evaluation criteria of nuclear size and pleomorphism, mitotic count, and tubule formation were primarily based on the Nottingham histologic grade.9–11 In this system, nuclear size and pleomorphism were scored 1 to 3. Small, regular uniform tumor cell nuclei were scored as 1, nuclei with a moderate increase in size were scored as 2, and a score of 3 was given when tumor cells had large nuclei and/or nuclei with marked variation in size and shape. To segregate cases with prominent nuclear pleomorphism, we focused on bizarre tumor cells throughout the tumor, rather than focal, regardless of the absolute nuclear size. These tumor cells had nuclei with marked variation in size and possessed prominent nucleoli. The mitotic count was determined in 10 fields with a ×40 objective lens (HPF). In the Nottingham histologic grade, a score of 1 was given when there were ≤8 mitoses counted, whereas 9 to 17 mitoses were scored as 2, and ≥18 were scored as 3 (field diameter 0.55 mm). In our analysis, high mitotic counts were defined as ≥30 mitoses in 10 HPF (same field diameter).

Lymphatic and vascular invasion was first assessed by H&E staining. An analysis with Elastica van Gieson (EVG) and D2-40 immunohistochemical staining (dilution at 1:100; Dako, Carpinteria, CA) of the representative tumor slide was then performed regardless of the results of the H&E evaluation. Noncomedo necrosis was defined as coagulative tumor necrosis in the invasive component imparting an infarcted appearance in contrast to intraductal comedo necrosis.16 The evaluation of tumor budding was based on the recommendation of the International Tumor Budding Consensus Conference.17 Tumor budding is defined as single cells or clusters of up to 4 cells at the invasive margin. It was counted on H&E staining using a ×20 objective lens and assessed in the highest hotspot at the invasive front. Tumor budding was graded from 1 to 3 according to the number of tumor buds as follows: grade 1, 0 to 4 buds; grade 2, 5 to 9 buds; and grade 3, ≥10 buds. In this study, grade 1 cases and grades 2 and 3 cases were categorized into low tumor budding and high tumor budding categories, respectively. In contrast to tumor budding, a poorly differentiated cluster (PDC) was evaluated as a cancer cell cluster composed of ≥5 cancer cells lacking a gland-like structure, as reported previously.18,19 The counting and grading methods were the same as for tumor budding. The tumor-stroma ratio was assessed using a ×10 objective lens in the most stroma-abundant area. The field with the highest stromal percentage was selected and scored.20,21 A stroma percentage ≤50% was categorized as stroma-low, whereas >50% was categorized as stroma-high.

Statistical Analyses

Univariate and multivariate Cox proportional hazards models and the Kaplan-Meier product-limit method were used to investigate the associations between the histologic features and OS and PFS. The potential confounders in the multivariate analysis included age, sex, primary tumor site, TNM classification, first-line treatment, and histologic origin (ie, de novo or ex pleomorphic adenoma). The strength of an association was determined by the hazard ratio (HR) and the 95% confidence interval (CI). The statistical analyses were performed using the STATA software program (version 13; StataCorp., College Station, TX). All of the tests were 2 sided, and P-values <0.05 were considered to indicate statistical significance.


Clinical Characteristics

The clinical characteristics of this study are summarized in Table 1. The mean age was 62.0 years old. The male:female ratio was 127:24, and a strong male predominance was observed. The majority of cases (117 cases, 77.5%) arose in the parotid gland. De novo SDC was noted in 57 cases (37.7%), and preexisting pleomorphic adenoma was recognized in 89 cases (58.9%). The median follow-up period of survivors was 3.4 years (range, 0.04 to 19.0 y). The 3-year OS was 68.5% (95% CI, 60.1%-75.5%), and the 3-year PFS was 34.3% (95% CI, 26.7%-42.1%).

Patient and Tumor Characteristics (N=151)

Histologic Characteristics

The Nottingham histologic grade (nuclear size and pleomorphism, mitosis, and tubule formation); prominent nuclear pleomorphism; mitosis (≥30/10 HPF); lymphatic, vascular, and perineural invasion; noncomedo necrosis; histologic origin; dominant growth pattern; tumor budding; PDC; and tumor-stromal ratio were evaluated for each tumor. Representative histologic features are shown in Figures 1 and 2.

Evaluation of prominent nuclear pleomorphism in SDC. A and B, SDC cases without prominent nuclear pleomorphism. Although the tumor cells have larger nuclei accompanied by conspicuous nucleoli in comparison to normal salivary duct epithelial cells, the variation in the size and shape is minimal (A) or slight (B). C and D, SDC cases with prominent nuclear pleomorphism. Tumor cells containing extremely large pleomorphic nuclei are scattered but others have relatively small monotonous nuclei (C). All tumor cells vary in size and shape. Bizarre nuclei and atypical mitoses are also present (D).
Various histologic parameters in SDC. A, Brisk mitotic activity. B, Intraductal pattern consisting of large ductal structures with a cribriform formation. C, Lymphatic invasion (inset: D2-40 immunohistochemistry). D, Vascular invasion (inset: EVG staining). E, High tumor budding. F–H, Varying degrees of PDCs in SDC. F, The invasive front is irregular, but no PDCs are found. G, Three PDCs are identified in this high-power view. PDCs of ≤5 in a hotspot was regarded as low PDC. H, SDC categorized as high PDC. A few tumor buddings are also noted.

Prognostic Impact

The distribution and the results of univariate and multivariate analyses of each histologic feature are shown in Table 2 and Supplementary Table S1 (Supplemental Digital Content 1, On a univariate analysis, prominent nuclear pleomorphism (P=0.004 and 0.007), lymphatic invasion with D2-40 stain (P=0.04 and 0.038), vascular invasion assessed by H&E stain (P=0.003 and <0.001), noncomedo necrosis (P=0.024 and 0.013), dominant invasive growth (P=0.001 and <0.001), and high PDC (P<0.001 and <0.001) were negative prognostic indicators for the OS and PFS. Furthermore, ≥30 mitoses/10 HPF (P=0.007), vascular invasion with EVG stain (P=0.005), perineural invasion (P=0.003), and high tumor budding (P=0.001) were associated with a poor PFS. The loss of tubule formation was associated with a better OS and PFS (P=0.015 and 0.002).

Univariate and Multivariate Analyses of Factors Associated With Clinical Outcomes (N=151)

A multivariate analysis showed prominent nuclear pleomorphism (P=0.013 and 0.019), high tumor budding (P=0.011 and <0.001), and high PDC (P<0.001 and <0.001) to be associated with a worse OS and PFS and ≥30 mitoses/10 HPF was correlated with an inferior prognosis for the PFS (P=0.013) (Table 2, Fig. 3). SDC patients with vascular invasion demonstrated poorer PFS with marginal significance (P=0.064).

Kaplan-Meier survival curves of PFS of patients with SDC stratified by the following histologic parameters. A, Prominent nuclear pleomorphism. B, Mitosis/10 HPF. C, Lymphatic invasion. D, Vascular invasion. E, Tumor budding. F, PDCs.

Histologic Risk Stratification Model

When the SDC cases in this cohort were classified based on the Nottingham histologic grade, grade 1 tumor was only found in 1 case (0.01%), and the HR was not calculable (Supplementary Table S1, Supplemental Digital Content 1, To establish a new histologic risk stratification model, we selected 4 histologic features that had an association with a poor OS and/or PFS (P<0.1) in a multivariate analysis: prominent nuclear pleomorphism, mitosis (≥30/10 HPF), vascular invasion, and high PDC. Patients were assigned to 3 risk groups according to the total number of positive factors (among these 4 factors), as follows: low risk, 0 to 1 point (n=35, 23.2%); intermediate risk, 2 to 3 points (n=81, 53.6%); and high risk, 4 points (n=35, 23.2%) (Fig. 4). SDC patients with a higher histologic risk group showed a significantly worse OS and PFS, and the HR progressively increased as histologic risk group increased on univariate and multivariate analyses (Ptrend<0.001) (Table 3, Fig. 5).

A schematic illustration of the proposed histologic risk stratification model.
Univariate and Multivariate Analyses of Histologic Risk Stratification Model and Clinical Outcomes (N=151)
Kaplan-Meier survival curves for OS (A) and PFS (B) of patients with SDC stratified by the histologic risk stratification model. Int-risk indicates intermediate risk.


The number of studies with histologic assessments of SDC is limited, largely due to the rarity of this entity. Clinically, the tumor size, nodal status, and metastasis have been described as associated with the patient prognosis.15,22–26 We performed a comprehensive histologic analysis of 151 SDC cases to identify histologic features that have a close association with the OS and PFS, independent of Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) TNM factors.27 The items we investigated included classic histologic features related to malignancy, such as nuclear atypia, mitosis, or lymphovascular invasion, and recently established histologic parameters, such as tumor budding and PDC, that have a strong impact on the patient survival in various tumor types.

Histologically, SDC has a striking resemblance to breast ductal carcinoma; however, we felt that SDC exhibited more pronounced nuclear atypia and had more mitoses. Indeed, when classified by the Nottingham histologic grade, only 1 case (0.01%) of SDC was classified as histologic grade 1 (Supplementary Table S1, Supplemental Digital Content 1, One previous study applied the Nottingham histologic grade to SDC, and no cases were classified as grade 1.28 These results contrasted with the relatively even distribution of breast carcinoma among grades.9,10 As the Nottingham histologic grade and individual histologic features in this system were not deemed appropriate for SDC, we modified the evaluation criteria of the parameters for breast cancer. We focused only on prominent nuclear pleomorphism throughout the tumor, not the nuclear size or focal change, and increased the mitotic count cutoff value (≥18 in Nottingham histologic grade and ≥30 in our analysis). As tubule formation was associated with a better prognosis in a univariate analysis but not in a multivariate analysis, this histologic feature was not included in the proposed histologic risk stratification model.

In previous reports, the lymphatic, vascular, and perineural invasion was considered to be associated with the prognosis of patient with SDC.29–32 However, whether or not vascular invasion should be separately evaluated from lymphatic invasion and whether or not EVG or D2-40 immunohistochemical staining are necessary have been unclear.13 In the present study, vascular invasion showed a stronger association with the PFS than lymphatic invasion, and this association was also observed in the multivariate analysis, suggesting that vascular invasion should be separately evaluated from lymphatic invasion. As additional EVG staining and D2-40 immunohistochemistry did not predict a poor patient prognosis more precisely than H&E staining, despite the potential for observer-based variation, these additional stains might not necessarily be required to detect lymphatic or vascular invasion (Table 2 and Supplementary Table S1, Supplemental Digital Content 1,

In our cohort, 89 SDC cases (58.9%) arose from preexisting pleomorphic adenoma, whereas others were de novo. In line with previous studies, the prognosis of SDC was not influenced by the histologic origin in either a univariate or multivariate analysis.22,30,33,34

SDC with a predominant intraductal component has been considered to have a better prognosis than invasive SDCs.2 We evaluated the amount of intraductal component of each tumor. Thirty-four SDC cases (22.5%) exhibited a dominant intraductal pattern consisting of large ductal structures with a cribriform, papillary, or solid growth (in >50% of the tumor). Although these cases showed a better prognosis than SDC with a dominant invasive growth in univariate analysis, this difference disappeared in multivariate analysis because of the close association with confounders.

Tumor budding and PDC have recently been described as notable histologic features that reflect the type of infiltrative growth at the invasion front and have not been evaluated previously for SDC. Tumor budding is reported to be a promising adverse prognostic indicator in many organs, including the colon, esophagus, breast, skin, stomach, and pancreas.35 PDC is also a poor prognosticator in colorectal cancer.18,19 In the present study, high tumor budding and PDC were strongly related to a poor OS and PFS in univariate and multivariate analyses; as PDC was more prevalent than tumor budding and a high PDC was associated with a higher HR and lower P-value than high tumor budding, we included PDC as an item for determining the histologic risk group. Although many previous studies of the tumor-stroma ratio concluded that high-stromal content was associated with a poor prognosis in other organs,20,21 in our analysis, no significant association was noticed.

The histologic grading or risk stratification model is widely used to predict the prognosis in patients with various malignant tumors. Among salivary gland carcinomas, mucoepidermoid carcinoma has widely recognized histologic grading systems.36 The 2 most popular systems are the point-based manner in which values are assigned for various histologic parameters.37,38 The Brandwein system includes not only features adopted in the AFIP system, such as intracystic component, perineural invasion, necrosis, mitosis, and anaplasia, but also lymphovascular invasion, bony invasion, and invasive front morphology.37,38 In SDC, the application of the Nottingham histologic grade was inappropriate because of the above-mentioned inability to stratify SDC cases, and a histologic risk stratification model specific to this lesion has been warranted.28 We selected the 4 histologic features deemed capable of predicting a poor OS or PFS in a multivariate analysis (prominent nuclear pleomorphism, ≥30 mitoses/10 HPF, vascular invasion, and high PDC), and the number of positive factors was classified 3 different risk groups (Fig. 4). Consequently, this risk stratification model was able to stratify SDC cases evenly into 3 groups of low-risk, intermediate-risk, and high-risk SDC. Using this novel model, risk groups can be assigned based on the findings of a microscopic evaluation with H&E staining alone, making it a useful and practical system that can be applied in any pathology laboratory and which requires no special ancillary testing. Although each histologic feature was a strong prognostic factor, the combination of these 4 histologic features might minimize the intra-observer variation that might arise when relying on a single feature.

The present study was associated with several limitations. Some of the evaluated features, for example, prominent nuclear pleomorphism, could be subjective. The concordance ratio in terms of prominent nuclear pleomorphism was not necessarily high. For example, the agreement rate between 2 pathologists was 82.1% and Cohen κ coefficient was 0.575. To preserve the integrity and prevent interobserver variation, the pathologists discussed discordant cases, and in Figure 1 typical images of prominent nuclear pleomorphism were presented. In addition, to avoid ambiguous usage of the term PDC, we strictly followed the previous criteria and counted the number of PDCs (Figs. 2F–H).18,19 Further validation cohort studies with different datasets and pathologists are warranted to confirm the reproducibility of this risk stratification model. Moreover, as the proposed model is based solely on the histologic features on H&E sections, the relationship with the molecular biomarker profiling classification assessed by the androgen receptor, HER2, and Ki-67 expression status requires further investigation.14

In conclusion, prominent nuclear pleomorphism, ≥30 mitoses/10 HPF, vascular invasion, ≥5 tumor budding, and ≥5 PDCs were strong prognostic predictors of a poor OS or PFS. The histologic risk stratification model based on these factors is a concise and practical method for predicting patient prognosis and providing appropriate therapeutic options.


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histologic risk stratification model; poorly differentiated clusters; prognosis; salivary duct carcinoma; tumor budding

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