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Rhabdomyosarcomatous Differentiation in Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors After Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor Therapy: A Novel Form of Tumor Progression

Liegl, Bernadette MD* †; Hornick, Jason L. MD, PhD*; Antonescu, Cristina R. MD; Corless, Christopher L. MD§; Fletcher, Christopher D. M. MD, FRCPath*

The American Journal of Surgical Pathology: February 2009 - Volume 33 - Issue 2 - p 218-226
doi: 10.1097/PAS.0b013e31817ec2e6
Original Articles

Approximately 80% of advanced metastatic gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) respond to treatment with the tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) imatinib mesylate. However, the majority of patients suffer disease progression at a median of 2 years due to drug resistance. In general, progressing GISTs retain their typical morphology. Herein, we report 5 cases of progressing metastatic GIST with heterologous rhabdomyoblastic differentiation after TKI treatment. Histologic, immunohistochemical, and mutational analyses were performed on histologically classic GISTs and components with rhabdomyoblastic differentiation. There were 3 men and 2 women (ranging from 35 to 66 y of age). Three tumors were localized at presentation (2 stomach and 1 small bowel) and 2 presented with metastases. All localized primary tumors were high risk. Two tumors showed spindle cell morphology and 3 were epithelioid, including 1 with marked pleomorphism. After resection of the 3 localized primary tumors, intra-abdominal (2 patients) and liver (1 patient) metastases developed. All patients were treated with imatinib and showed partial clinical responses (4 patient) or stable disease (1 patient). Four patients subsequently progressed; 2 patients were treated with sunitinib after progression with minor responses. Four patients underwent surgical debulking. At last follow-up (range: 20 to 87 mo), 2 patients died of disease, 2 were alive with metastatic disease resistant to TKIs, and 1 was alive without evidence of disease. In all cases, rhabdomyoblastic differentiation was identified adjacent to areas with classic GIST morphology in at least 1 metastatic site; in 1 case, the primary tumor (after treatment with TKIs) showed heterologous differentiation. The rhabdomyoblastic components showed strong and diffuse positivity for desmin and expressed myogenin, whereas KIT was negative in the rhabdomyoblastic component in all cases. Primary KIT mutations were detected in both the conventional GIST and rhabdomyoblastic components from all patients: KIT exon 11 mutations in 4 cases and a platelet-derived growth factor receptor α gene exon 18 deletion in 1 case. No secondary mutations of the type associated with TKI resistance were identified in the rhabdomyoblastic areas. This is the first report of rhabdomyoblastic differentiation occurring in GISTs that progressed on TKI therapy. It is associated with loss of KIT expression, but retention of the receptor tyrosine kinase mutation of the precursor GIST. The rhabdomyoblastic differentiation can represent a diagnostic pitfall. The molecular mechanisms for this form of TKI-resistant clonal evolution remain to be determined.

*Department of Pathology, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA

Department of Pathology, Medical University of Graz, Graz, Austria

Department of Pathology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY

§Department of Pathology, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, OR

Correspondence: Christopher D. M. Fletcher, MD, FRCPath, Department of Pathology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, 75 Francis Street, Boston, MA 02115 (e-mail:

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.