Clinical Review

Aggressive B-Cell Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma



Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma

DLBCL is the most common lymphoid neoplasm in adults, accounting for about 25% of all NHL cases.2 It is increasingly clear that the diagnostic category of DLBCL is quite heterogeneous in terms of morphology, genetics, and biologic behavior. A number of clinicopathologic subtypes of DLBCL exist, such as T cell/histiocyte–rich large B-cell lymphoma, primary mediastinal large B-cell lymphoma, intravascular large B-cell lymphoma, DLBCL associated with chronic inflammation, lymphomatoid granulomatosis, and EBV-positive large B-cell lymphoma, among others. Gene expression profiling (GEP) can distinguish 2 cell of origin DLBCL subtypes: the germinal center B-cell (GCB) and activated B-cell (ABC) subtypes.15

DLBCL may be primary (de novo) or may arise through the transformation of many different types of low-grade B-cell lymphomas. This latter scenario is referred to as histologic transformation or transformed lymphoma. In some cases, patients may have a previously diagnosed low-grade B-cell NHL; in other cases, both low-grade and aggressive B-cell NHL may be diagnosed concurrently. The presence of elements of both low-grade and aggressive B-cell NHL in the same biopsy specimen is sometimes referred to as a composite lymphoma.

In the United States, incidence varies by ethnicity, with DLBCL being more common in Caucasians than other races.16 There is a slight male predominance (55%), median age at diagnosis is 65 years,16,17 and the incidence increases with age.

Presentation, Pathology, and Prognostic Factors

The most common presentation of patients with DLBCL is rapidly enlarging lymphadenopathy, usually in the neck or abdomen. Extranodal/extramedullary presentation is seen in approximately 40% of cases, with the gastrointestinal (GI) tract being the most common site. However, extranodal DLBCL can arise in virtually any tissue.18 Nodal DLBCL presents with symptoms related to the sites of involvement (eg, shortness of breath or chest pain with mediastinal lymphadenopathy), while extranodal DLBCL typically presents with symptoms secondary to dysfunction at the site of origin. Up to one third of patients present with constitutional symptoms (B symptoms) and more than 50% have elevated serum lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) at diagnosis.19

Approximately 40% of patients present with stage I/II disease. Of these, only a subset present with stage I, or truly localized disease (defined as that which can be contained within 1 irradiation field). About 60% of patients present with advanced (stage III–IV) disease.20 The bone marrow is involved in about 15% to 30% of cases. DLBCL involvement of the bone marrow is associated with a less favorable prognosis. Patients with DLBCL elsewhere may have low-grade NHL involvement of the bone marrow. Referred to as discordant bone marrow involvement,21 this feature does not carry the same poor prognosis associated with transformed disease22 or DLBCL involvement of the bone marrow.23

DLBCL is defined as a neoplasm of large B-lymphoid cells with a diffuse growth pattern. The proliferative fraction of cells, as determined by Ki-67 staining, is usually greater than 40%, and may even exceed 90%. Lymph nodes usually demonstrate complete effacement of the normal architecture by sheets of atypical lymphoid cells. Tumor cells in DLBCL generally express pan B-cell antigens (CD19, CD20, CD22, CD79a, Pax-5) as well as CD45 and surface immunoglobulin. Between 20% and 37% of DLBCL cases express the BCL-2 protein,24 and about 70% express the BCL-6 protein.25 C-MYC protein expression is seen in a higher percentage (~ 30%–50%) of cases of DLBCL.26

Many factors are associated with outcome in DLBCL. The IPI score was developed in the pre-rituximab era and is a robust prognostic tool. This simple tool uses 5 easily obtained clinical factors (age > 60 years, impaired performance status, elevated LDH, > 1 extranodal site of disease, and stage III/IV disease). By summing these factors, 4 groups with distinct 5-year overall survival (OS) rates ranging from 26% to 73% were identified (Table 2). Subsequently, modifications were made to adjust for age and stage, with the latest iteration being the NCCN (National Comprehensive Cancer Network) IPI.27 This tool uses age, performance status, LDH ratio (relative to the upper limit of normal), a more precise definition for presence of extranodal sites of disease (defined as lymphomatous involvement in the bone marrow, CNS, liver/GI tract, or lung), and Ann Arbor stage to stratify patients into 4 risk groups with significantly different 5-year OS, ranging from 38% to 96% based on the subgroup. Importantly, the NCCN-IPI was derived in a cohort of patients treated with rituximab-based therapy.

Cytogenetic and molecular factors also predict outcome in DLBCL. The ABC subtype distinguished by GEP has consistently been shown to have inferior outcomes with first-line therapy. As GEP is not routinely available in clinical practice, immunohistochemical (IHC) approaches (eg, the Hans algorithm) have been developed that can approximate the GEP subtypes. These IHC approaches have approximately 80% concordance with GEP.28 The 3 most common chromosomal translocations in DLBCL involve BCL-2, BCL-6 and MYC. MYC-rearranged DLBCLs have a less favorable prognosis.29,30 Cases in which a MYC translocation occurs in combination with a BCL-2 or BCL-6 translocation are commonly referred to as double-hit lymphoma (DHL); cases with all 3 translocations are referred to as triple-hit lymphoma (THL). Both DHL and THL have a worse prognosis with standard DLBCL therapy compared to non-DHL/THL cases. In the 2016 revised WHO classification, DHL and THL are an entity technically distinct from DLBCL, referred to as high-grade B-cell lymphoma.1 In some cases, MYC and BCL-2 protein overexpression occurs in the absence of chromosomal translocations. Cases in which MYC and BCL-2 are overexpressed (by IHC) are referred to as double expressor lymphoma (DEL), and also have inferior outcome compared with non-DEL DLBCL.31,32 Interestingly, MYC protein expression alone does not confer inferior outcomes, unlike isolated MYC translocation, which is associated with inferior outcomes.

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