Positive Rate of Malignant Cells in Endometrial Cytology Samples of Ovarian Cancer, Fallopian Tube Cancer, and Primary Peritoneal Cancer Patients: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis : Journal of Cytology

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Review Article

Positive Rate of Malignant Cells in Endometrial Cytology Samples of Ovarian Cancer, Fallopian Tube Cancer, and Primary Peritoneal Cancer Patients: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Wang, Tiantian; Bin, Yadi; Zhao, Lanbo; Li, Qiling

Author Information
Journal of Cytology 40(2):p 51-57, Apr–Jun 2023. | DOI: 10.4103/joc.joc_49_22
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Ovarian cancer is one of the most common malignant tumors in the female reproductive system, and its incidence ranks second only to cervical cancer and endometrial cancer. However, it has the highest mortality rate, and 47% of all deaths from cancer of the female genital tract occur in women with ovarian cancer.[1] Five-year survival rates of patients diagnosed with International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) stage I epithelial ovarian cancer are 90%, stage II 65%, stage III 34%, and stage IV 15%.[2] Therefore, early diagnosis is vital for reducing mortality. However, 71% of the patients were diagnosed at advanced stages (FIGO III and IV) due to the lack of typical clinical presentations and effective means of early diagnosis.[3]

Before 2008, serum CA125 was the only Food and Drug Administration-approved tumor marker of ovarian cancer.[4] About 50% of ovarian cancer patients have a high level of serum CA125 at early stages,[5] leading to low sensitivity and a high false-negative rate in the early asymptomatic phase. Besides, an increase of serum CA125 level can also be found in 1%–2% healthy individuals, 6% patients with benign diseases, and 28% patients with non-gynecological malignant diseases,[6] which can result in a high false-positive rate. HE4 was approved to be used in the detection of the recurrence of ovarian cancer in 2008.[7] Studies have shown that it performs better than serum CA125 in sensitivity and specificity in the early stages of epithelial ovarian cancer,[8,9] but its ability to detect ovarian cancer in the early stage is still far from satisfactory.[10] Transvaginal ultrasound is a widely accepted noninvasive technique which performs better than transrectal and peritoneal ultrasound.[11] However, the early detection of ovarian cancer by transvaginal ultrasound requires the presence of detectable masses that often present as precursors to low-grade serous carcinoma, endometrioid carcinoma, clear cell carcinoma, or mucinous carcinoma.[12] Thus as for high-grade serous cancers (HGSCs), the use of transvaginal ultrasound for screening early lesions is ineffective because a large proportion of which develop from small lesions of the fallopian tubes.[13–15] Several large clinical studies among asymptomatic average-risk women have indicated that the screening method combining CA125 and transvaginal ultrasound didn’t help in improving the prognoses of the ovarian cancer patients.[16,17] So finding an effective diagnostic tool is pretty imperative.

In 1992, Luzzatto[18] first reported the presence of malignant cells in endometrial smears from a patient with early bilateral ovarian cancer. Since then, a series of case reports have claimed that malignant cells were detected in endometrial smears from ovarian cancer patients[19–21] and fallopian tube cancer patients,[22–25] which provided a possible novel way of ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer diagnosis.

To evaluate the feasibility of diagnosing ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer through endometrial cytology, we conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to estimate the positive rates of malignant cells in endometrial cytology samples from patients with ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer.


Search strategy and selection criteria

PubMed, EMBASE, Medline, and Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trails were queried from inception to November 12, 2020, for studies estimating positive rates of malignant cells in endometrial cytology samples from patients with ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer [Supplementary Tables 2-4]. We excluded studies of which the populations had accepted any treatment before the exam, studies of which the positive rates of patients without endometrial lesions were not accessible, or the records without the original data, case reports, case series, reviews, and letters. Included publications were restricted to English articles. All studies were reviewed by two co-authors, separately, and discrepancies were settled by a discussion with the third reviewer.

STable 1:
Search strategy of Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trails (from inception to November 12, 2020)
STable 2:
Search strategy of EMBASE (from inception to November 12, 2020)
STable 3:
Search strategy of Medline (from inception to November 12, 2020)
STable 4:
Search strategy of PubMed (from inception to November 12, 2020)

Quality assessment and data abstraction

For each selected article, a standard data extraction form was used to extract the general characteristics (first author, year of publication, country, research institution, period, study design, patient selection, sample size) and details of participants (age, tumor site, sampling methods, staining methods) and outcomes (the number of positive malignant cell cases, including by subgroup when available).

Definitions and outcomes

Positive endometrial cytology was defined by studies as the presence of malignant cells in endometrial specimens, regardless of the number of malignant cells. The outcome parameter was the pooled positive rate of malignant cells in endometrial cytology specimens of patients with ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer.

Statistical methods

We calculated the pooled positive rate and 95% confidence interval (95% CI) of malignant cells in endometrial cytology specimens of patients with ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer. Meta-analyses of proportions were performed on logit-transformed data. Furthermore, predefined subgroup analyses based on different sampling methods were conducted. I2 statistic was used for evaluating the statistical heterogeneity of the included studies, I2 < 25%, 25%–50%, 50%–70%, >70% were considered low, moderate, high, and considerable heterogeneity, respectively. If the results showed high or considerable heterogeneity, we would use the random effects model to pool the data; otherwise, the fixed effects model was used. Sensitivity analyses were used to assess the stability of the results. As only seven eligible articles were included and our sensitivity analyses showed great stability for our results, we didn’t perform our preplanned meta-regression to look for sources of heterogeneity. The above statistical analyses were all carried out through R 4.0.3.

Risk of bias assessment in individual studies

Modified Methodological Index for Non-Randomized Studies consisting of six items was used to assess the quality of the included studies. Two items regarding the follow-up information were deleted because they were not applicable. Finally, we evaluated each study in terms of aim, patient selection, data collection, endpoints, endpoint assessment and loss to follow-up less than 5%. Each item was assessed as “high risk”, “unclear risk”, or “low risk” if data were “reported but not adequate”, “not reported”, or “reported and adequate”. The assessment of the risk of bias was performed through Review Manager 5.4.

Ethics approval: Not applicable.


Among the 9082 studies screened from the databases initially, 7159 studies were left after removing the duplicates. After checking the titles and abstracts, we excluded 7077 studies that didn’t meet the inclusion criteria. The full texts of 13 records were not available through document delivery. Of the remaining 69 full-text articles, two were excluded for not written in English and one was excluded because of the lack of detailed data. Fifty-seven case reports, case series, and two abstracts were excluded. Finally, seven retrospective studies[26–32] including 975 patients were identified [Figure 1].

Figure 1:
Flow diagram of study selection (PRISMA 2009 Flow Diagram)

The characteristics of the selected studies were shown in Table 1. All of the studies were single-center studies from Japan, but it turned out that they were performed by different teams from different research centers. The years of publication varied from 1997 to 2020. The gold standards of diagnoses (positive control) of the researches were all histopathology. Two studies had a population of fewer than 100 patients.[26,31] The positive rates of malignant cells in endometrial cytology specimens of ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer patients ranged from 11.7% to 50%.

Table 1:
Characteristics of the included studies

Risk of bias assessment in individual studies

All of the included studies showed a low risk of bias in terms of “aim”, “data selection”, “endpoints”, “endpoint assessment”, and “loss to follow up less than 5%”. Five studies[27,29–32] didn’t report if the patients were selected continuously or not, and thus, they were considered “unclear risk” [Figure 2].

Figure 2:
(a) The risk of bias of each included study based on the review authors’ judgments; (b) Summary of each risk of bias item presented as percentages of all included studies

Pooled positive rate

Statistical heterogeneity among the included studies was considerable (I2 = 89%, P < 0.01). We used random effects model to pool the positive rates. Pooled positive rate of malignant cells in endometrial cytology specimens of ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer patients was 23% (95% CI: 16%–34%) [Figure 3].

Figure 3:
Forest plot of pooled positive rate of endometrial cytology of the included studies

Subgroup analysis

The result of subgroup analysis based on different sampling methods was shown in Figure 4. There were four studies including 605 patients in the group of aspiration smears, the pooled positive rate of which was 33% (95% CI: 25%–42%, I2 = 80%, P < 0.01). The group of brushes included three studies, the pooled positive rate was 13% (95% CI: 10%–17%, I2 = 0, P = 0.45). The test of difference between subgroups showed a significant difference (P < 0.001). The specific sampling tools were listed in Table 1, two of the studies didn’t report the staining methods, and[28,30] all of the other studies used Papanicolaou stain.

Figure 4:
Forest plot of pooled positive rate of endometrial cytology between the different sampling methods’ subgroups

Sensitivity analyses

Sensitivity analyses showed that after eliminating the researches one by one, the pooled positive rates ranged from 21% to 26%, the I2 varied from 83.2% to 90.5%, which indicated that our results were stable [Supplementary Figure 1].

SFigure 1:
Forest plot of sensitivity analyses


Our research showed that the pooled incidence of malignant cells in endometrial cytology samples from ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer patients was 23% (95% CI: 16%–34%). Patients using the aspiration smears sampling method had a positive rate of 33% (95% CI: 25%–42%), which was higher than that of the brushes group (13%, 95% CI: 10%–17%). According to the result of the sensitivity analyses, our results were reckoned to have good stability.

Based on the subgroup analysis, we consider the different sampling methods as the major source of heterogeneity. We found that the positive rate was higher in the group of aspiration. However, the previous study done by our group indicated that brushes were more likely to obtain more adequate tissues than aspiration smears in patients with endometrial cancer.[33]

Although we didn’t perform further analyses due to the paucity of detailed data, there were some other clinic-pathologic characteristics as potential sources of heterogeneity. In 2002, Singer et al.[34] proposed a secondary grading system for ovarian serous cancers, which divided ovarian serous cancers into low-grade serous cancers and HGSCs. At present, multiple studies had bolstered the notion that many or most extra-uterine HGSCs may stem from the fallopian tubes.[35–38] Two of the included studies[27,32] showed that HGSCs had higher positive rates than other pathological types. This finding seems reasonable since the study of Bijron et al.[39] has shown that the intraluminal shedding of tumor cells in the fallopian tubes from serous carcinoma cases is common. What’s more, several studies suggested that advanced patients of stages III or IV had higher positive rates,[27,29,32] and high positive rates might be related to the presence of the ascites.[26,29,32]

Except for endometrial cytology, malignant cells have been proven to be detectable in ascites cytology and cervicovaginal cytology. Our literature review indicated that the positive rates of malignant cells in ascites cytology of ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer patients ranged from 18.1% to 85%, and 6.1% to 25% in cervicovaginal cytology [Table 2].[26–32,40]

Table 2:
Review of literatures reporting the positive rates of malignant cells in ascites specimens and cervicovaginal specimens

We hold that with a positive rate of only 23%, although endometrial cytology is not an ideal tool for the diagnosis of ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer, it is a potentially convenient, painless, and easy-to-implement adjunct to other tools. A higher positive rate may be achieved if we apply it to specific groups, such as the high-risk population of HGSCs or patients with ascites, and more experiments should be carried out to combine endometrial cytology with other tools to see if there would be an increase in the detection rate.

Strengths and limitations

For all we know, our study was the first systematic review and meta-analysis to estimate the positive rates of malignant cells in endometrial cytology samples from ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer patients. Our conclusions were based on a rigorous process of article retrieval, article screening, literature evaluation, data extraction, and data processing.

However, there were still some inevitable limitations. Firstly, due to the constraint of the language and literature resources, we only included English studies, which may lead to a language bias. Secondly, we didn’t conduct subgroup analyses based on tumor sites, pathological types, the presence of ascites and the FIGO stages on account of the lack of detailed data. Thirdly, owing to the small number of related studies, this study had a limited sample size. Fourthly, all of the included studies were from Japan, which lead to a geographical constraint on the applicability of the results. Finally, baseline characteristics were not clearly stated in some studies, which may affect the results.

Financial support and sponsorship

This work was supported by the Clinical Research Award of the First Affiliated Hospital of Xi’an Jiaotong University, China (XJTU1AF-2018-017, XJTU1AF-CRF-2019-002), the Natural Science Basic Research Program of Shaanxi (2018JM7073, 2017ZDJC-11), the Key Research and Development Program of Shaanxi (2017ZDXM-SF-068, 2019QYPY-138), the Innovation Capability Support Program of Shaanxi (2017XT-026, 2018XT-002), and the Medical Research Project of Xi’an Social Development Guidance Plan (2017117SF/YX011-3). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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              Detection rate; endometrial cytology; malignant cell; ovarian tumor

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