Clinical Review

Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors: Management of Localized Disease

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Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) are the most common mesenchymal tumor of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and arise from the interstitial cells of Cajal of the myenteric plexus. These tumors are rare, with about 1 case per 100,000 persons diagnosed in the United States annually, but may be incidentally discovered in up to 1 in 5 autopsy specimens of older adults.1,2 Epidemiologic risk factors include increasing age, with a peak incidence between age 60 and 65 years, male gender, black race, and non-Hispanic white ethnicity. Germline predisposition can also increase the risk of developing GISTs; molecular drivers of GIST include gain-of-function mutations in the KIT proto-oncogene and platelet-derived growth factor receptor α (PDGFRA) gene, which both encode structurally similar tyrosine kinase receptors; germline mutations of succinate dehydrogenase (SDH) subunit genes; and mutations associated with neurofibromatosis type 1.

GISTs most commonly involve the stomach, followed by the small intestine, but can arise anywhere within the GI tract (esophagus, colon, rectum, and anus). They can also develop outside the GI tract, arising from the mesentery, omentum, and retroperitoneum. The majority of cases are localized or locoregional, whereas about 20% are metastatic at presentation.1 GISTs can occur in children, adolescents, and young adults. Pediatric GISTs represent a distinct subset marked by female predominance and gastric origin, are often multifocal, can sometimes have lymph node involvement, and typically lack mutations in the KIT and PDGFRA genes.

This review is the first of 2 articles focusing on the diagnosis and management of GISTs. Here, we review the evaluation and diagnosis of GISTs along with management of localized disease. Management of advanced disease is reviewed in a separate article.

Case Presentation

A 64-year-old African American man with progressive iron deficiency and abdominal discomfort undergoes upper and lower endoscopy and is found to have a bulging mass within his abdominal cavity. He undergoes a computed tomography (CT) evaluation of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis with contrast, which reveals the presence of a 10-cm gastric mass, with no other lesions identified. He undergoes surgical resection of the mass and presents for review of his pathology and to discuss his treatment plan.

What histopathologic features are consistent with GIST?

What factors are used for risk stratification and to predict likelihood of recurrence?

Clinical Presentation and Diagnosis

Most patients present with symptoms of overt or occult GI bleeding or abdominal discomfort, but a significant proportion of GISTs are discovered incidentally. Lymph node involvement is not typical, except for GISTs occurring in children and/or with rare syndromes. Most syndromic GISTs are multifocal and multicentric. After surgical resection, GISTs usually recur or metastasize within the abdominal cavity, including the omentum, peritoneum, or liver. These tumors rarely spread to the lungs, brain, or bones; when tumor spread does occur, it tends to be in heavily pre-treated patients with advanced disease who have been on multiple lines of therapy for a long duration of time.

The diagnosis usually can be made by histopathology. Specimens can be obtained by endoscopic ultrasound (EUS)– or CT-guided methods, the latter of which carries a very small risk of contamination from percutaneous biopsy. In terms of morphology, GISTs can be spindle cell, epithelioid, or mixed neoplasms. Epithelioid tumors are more commonly seen in the stomach and are often PDGFRA-mutated or SDH-deficient. The differential diagnosis includes other soft-tissue GI wall tumors such as leiomyosarcomas/leiomyomas, germ cell tumors, lymphomas, fibromatosis, and neuroendocrine and neurogenic tumors. A unique feature of GISTs that differentiates them from leiomyomas is near universal expression of CD117 by immunohistochemistry (IHC); this characteristic has allowed pathologists and providers to accurately distinguish true GISTs from other GI mesenchymal tumors.3 Recently, DOG1 (discovered on GIST1) immunoreactivity has been found to be helpful in identifying patients with CD117-negative GISTs. Initially identified through gene expression analysis of GISTs, DOG1 IHC can identify the common mutant c-Kit-driven CD117-positive GISTs as well as the rare CD117-negative GISTs, which are often driven by mutated PDGFRA.4 Importantly, IHC for KIT and DOG1 are not surrogates for mutational status, nor are they predictive of tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) sensitivity. If IHC of a tumor specimen is CD117- and DOG1-negative, the specimen can be sent for KIT and PDGFRA mutational analysis to confirm the diagnosis. If analysis reveals that these genes are wild-type, then IHC staining for SDH B (SDHB) should follow to assess for an SDH-deficient GIST (negative staining).

Risk Stratification for Recurrence

The clinical behavior of GISTs can be variable. Some are indolent, while others behave more aggressively, with a greater malignant potential and a higher propensity to recur and metastasize. Clinical and pathologic features can provide important prognostic information that allows providers to risk-stratify patients. Various institutions have assessed prognostic variables for GISTs. In 2001, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) held a GIST workshop that proposed an approach to estimating metastatic risk based on tumor size and mitotic index (NIH or Fletcher criteria).5 Joensuu et al later proposed a modification of the NIH risk classification to include tumor location and tumor rupture (modified NIH criteria or Joensuu criteria).6-8 Similarly, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) identified tumor site as a prognostic factor, with gastric GISTs having the best prognosis (AFIP-Miettinen criteria).9-11 Tabular schemes were designed which stratified patients into discrete groups with ranges for mitotic rate and tumor size. Nomograms for ease of use were then constructed utilizing a bimodal mitotic rate and included tumor site and size.12 Finally, contour maps were developed, which have the advantage of evaluating mitotic rate and tumor size as continuous nonlinear variables and also include tumor site and rupture (associated with a high risk of peritoneal metastasis) separately, further improving risk assessment. These contour maps have been validated against pooled data from 10 series (2560 patients).13 High-risk features identified from these studies include tumor location, size, mitotic rate and tumor rupture and are now used for deciding on the use of adjuvant imatinib and as requirements to enter clinical trials assessing adjuvant therapy for resected GISTs.

Case Continued

The patient’s operative and pathology reports indicate that the tumor is a spindle cell neoplasm of the stomach that is positive for CD117, DOG1, and CD34 and negative for smooth muscle actin and S-100, consistent with a diagnosis of GIST. Resection margins are negative. There are 10 mitoses per 50 high-power fields (HPF). Per the operative report, there was no intraoperative or intraperitoneal tumor rupture. Thus, while his GIST was gastric, which generally has a more favorable prognosis, the tumor harbors high-risk features based on its size and mitotic index.


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