Management of cutaneous melanoma has changed after introduction in the clinical routine of sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) for nodal staging. By defining the nodal basin status, SLNB provides a powerful prognostic information. Nevertheless, some debate still surrounds the accuracy of this procedure in terms of false-negative rate. Several large-scale studies have reported a relatively high false-negative rate (5.6%–21%), correctly defined as the proportion of false-negative results with respect to the total number of “actual” positive lymph nodes. In this review, we identified all the technical aspects that the nuclear medicine physician, the surgeon, and the pathologist should take into account to improve accuracy of the procedure and minimize the false-negative rate. In particular, SPECT/CT imaging detects more SLNs than those found by planar lymphoscintigraphy. Furthermore, the nuclear medicine community should reach a consensus on the radioactive counting rate threshold to better guide the surgeon in identifying the lymph nodes with the highest likelihood of housing metastases (“true biologic SLNs”). Analysis of the harvested SLNs by conventional techniques is also a further potential source for error. More accurate SLN analysis (eg, molecular analysis by reverse transcriptase–polymerase chain reaction) and more extensive SLN sampling identify more positive nodes, thus reducing the false-negative rate.
The clinical factors identifying patients at higher-risk local recurrence after a negative SLNB include older age at diagnosis, deeper lesions, histological ulceration, and head-neck anatomic location of the primary lesion.
The clinical impact of a false-negative SLNB on the prognosis of melanoma patients remains controversial, because the majority of studies have failed to demonstrate overall statistically significant disadvantage in melanoma-specific survival for false-negative SLNB patients compared with true-positive SLNB patients.
When new more effective drugs will be available in the adjuvant setting for stage III melanoma patients, the implication of an accurate staging procedure for the sentinel lymph nodes will be crucial for both patients and clinicians. Standardization and accuracy of SLN identification, removal, and analysis are required.
From the *Regional Center of Nuclear Medicine, University of Pisa Medical School, Pisa; †Department of Nuclear Medicine, Santa Maria della Misericordia Hospital, Rovigo; ‡Department of Oncology, University of Pisa Medical School, Pisa, Italy; and §Department of Radiology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA.
Received for publication November 18, 2013; revision accepted December 16, 2013.
Conflicts of interest and sources of funding: none declared.
Reprints: Domenico Rubello, MD, Department of Nuclear Medicine, PET Unit, Santa Maria della Misericordia Hospital, Via Tre Martiri 140, 45100 Rovigo, Italy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.