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Physiologic Versus Neoplastic C-Cell Hyperplasia of
the Thyroid
Separation of Distinct Histologic and Biologic Entities
Arrie Perry, M.D.’
Kyle Molberg, M.D.’
Jorge Albores-Saavedra, M.D.’
’ Department of Pathology, University of Texas
Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Dallas,
Address for reprints: Jorge Albores-Saavedra,
M.D., Division of Anatomic Pathology, Department of Pathology, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, 5323 Harry Hines
Blvd., Dallas. TX 75235-9072.
Received August 11, 1995; revision received
October 19, 1995; accepted October 27, 1995.
SI 1996 American
Cancer Society
BACKGROUND. Although hyperplasia of C-cells has been described in association
with various pathologic and physiologic conditions, criteria for its diagnosis are
poorly defined. Both neoplastic and physiologic C-cell proliferations have been
lumped together under the umbrella designation of C-cell hyperplasia (CCH), creating considerable confusion among clinicians and pathologists.
METHODS. In order to compare the morphologic and inimunohistochemical characteristics of the two major types of CCH, we examined thyroid sections of 17
patients with familial forms of C-cell hyperplasia and/or neoplasia and tissue sections of 19 thyroid glands known to have reactive or physiologic CCH (at least 50
C-cells per one low power field, 1 0 0 ~ )Hematoxylin
and eosin (H & E) stained
sections and immunohistochemical stains for calcitonin were assessed in each
RESULTS. Physiologic or reactive CCH was not recognized with certainty on H &
E stains in any of the cases due to morphologic similarities between C-cells and
adjacent follicular cells. Detection of this form of hyperplasia, which was predominantly diffuse, required calcitonin imniunostains and quantitative analysis. Conversely, nodular and diffuse neoplastic CCH was easily identified with conventional
H & E stains at the periphery of 11/12 (92%)familial medullary thyroid carcinomas
(MTC).I n the other five cases, neoplastic C-cell hyperplasia was the only pathologic
finding on thyroidectomy performed for elevated serum calcitonin levels detected
via provocative biochemical screening or identification of the mutated RET protooncogene by genetic analysis. The C-cells in this neoplastic form of CCH were
large, mildly to moderately atypical, and confined within the basement membrane
of thyroid follicles. Moreover, these cells were cytologically indistinguishable from
those of invasive MTC cells.
CONCLUSIONS. Physiologic and neoplastic CCH are biologically and morphologically distinct entities. The former cannot be recognized with certainty with conventional stains and requires itnmunohistochemistv and quantitative analysis for
diagnosis. The latter consists of mildly to moderately atypical C-cells that can be
identified with H & E stained sections. Consequently, the number of C-cells is of
no importance for the diagnosis of neoplastic CCH which is considered to be the
precursor (medullary carcinoma in situ) of invasive medullary carcinoma. Cancer
1996; 77:750-6. 0 1996 American Cancer Society.
KEYWORDS physiologic C-cell hyperplasia, medullary carcinoma in situ, MEN Ila,
MEN Ilb, familial medullary carcinoma, irnmunohistochernistry.
ince the first description of calcitonin-producing C-cells’ and their
malignant counterpart, medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC), a number of questions regarding the C-cell proliferations known as C-cell hyperplasia (CCH) remain unanswered. CCH has been used for at least two
C-Cell Hyperplasia/Perry et al.
different biologic processes. The first is a misnomer used
to describe the precursor of familial MTC (FMTC) associated with multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) IIa, MEN
IIb, and FMTC unassociated with other manifestations of
MEN."4 The :second form of CCH is a physiologic or
reactive C-cell proliferation which has been reported in
neonates,' in the e1derly,'"Ih and in patients with hyperparathyroidi~rn."~'~
Hashimoto's thyroiditi~,"-~~
previous hemithyr~idectomy,'~follicular thyroid neoplasms
25.'h and non-Hodgkin's lymphomas of the thyroid." Although poorly understood, the pathogenesis of this form
has been attributed to overstimulation by thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH),hypercalcemia, and other factors.
In contrast to the neoplastic form, physiologic or reactive
CCH is not associated with MTC.
Studies of physiologic and neoplastic CCH based on
conventional stains are almost nonexistent. As a result,
the information provided in many articles has led some
to believe that immunohistochemistry (IHC) or electron
microscopy are indispensable for the diagnosis of both
types of C-cell proliferations.
The lumping of these two biologically different forms
of CCH under the same diagnostic heading has led to
considerable confusion among clinicians and pathologists. This confusion is compounded by lack of uniform
diagnostic criteria. In this study, we emphasize the morphologic differences between physiologic and neoplastic
CCH and discuss diagnostic criteria for each.
Seventeen thyroidectomy cases with clinical or histologic
evidence of familial C-cell neoplastic disease (MEN IIa,
MEN IIb, and FMTC) were retrieved for further study
(Group I) from the surgical pathology files at the University OF Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, and
from 1he personal consultation files of one of the authors
(JAS). Criteria lor establishing the familial form of C-cell
neoplasia included appropriate family history, extrathyroid manifestations of MEN 11, and multifocal MTC or
neoplastic CCH. In three patients, mutations of the RET
proto-oncogene were identified in the peripheral blood.
Neoplastic CCH was defined as the presence of large,
mildly to moderately atypical, intrafollicular cells cytologically resembling those of MTC with immunoreactivity
for calcitonin.
Group I1 consisted of 19 examples of physiologic
CCH including 17 previously reported cases associated
with follicular neoplasms, and 2 associated with Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Physiologic CCH was defined according to criteria set by Albores-Saavedra et al.z5which
require 50 or more cytologically bland intrafollicular calcitonin positive cells in at least one low power field
All available clinical data and hematoxylin and eosin
Patient Population
No. of cases
Group 11 (Physiologic CCH)
Papillary carcinoma
Follicular carcinoma
Follicular adenoma
Hashimoto's thyroiditis
Associated diagnosis
Group I (Neoplastic CCH)
Histologic evidence of FMTC
Basal or following pentagastrin stimulation.
N P not Derformed; FMTC familial medullary thyroid carcinoma
(H & E) slides were reviewed by one of the authors (JAS). Immunostains were performed in all cases using the
standard avidin-biotin peroxidase method. The calcitonin antibody (dilution 1:100) was obtained commercially
(Lipshaw, Pittsburg, PA). Appropriate positive MTC and
negative controls were used.
Table 1 categorizes the patient populations in Groups I
and I1 according to their associated diagnoses. Patients
in Group I (neoplastic CCH) consisted of 11 males and 6
females who ranged in age from 3 to 61 years (mean
age, 21 years). Patients in Group I1 (physiologic CCH)
consisted of 7 males and 12 females who ranged in age
from 17 to 54 years (mean age, 33 years). Eight patients
in Group I had a family history of MEN IIa and six had
a family history of FMTC. The remaining three patients
had no family history of thyroid neoplasms, however, they
did have histologic evidence of the genetic form of MTC.
All three patients had multifocal MTC or neoplastic CCH
and one patient had parathyroid hyperplasia in addition.
None of the patients in Group I1 had either personal or
family histories of MTC.
Of the 17 patients in Group I, 10 had thyroidectomies
for repeatedly elevated serum calcitonin levels with or
without pentagastrin stimulation. Seven of these specimens had small non-palpable, bilateral medullary carcinomas varing from 0.1 cm to 0.7 cm in diameter, while
three showed only bilateral CCH. Four of the seventeen
patients had thyroidectomies for palpable masses. Three
of these specimens revealed palpable medullary carcinomas ranging from 1.0 cm to 3 cm in diameter. The fourth
patient had a 0.4 cm medullary carcinoma discovered
incidentally adjacent to a palpable follicular adenoma.
CANCER February 15,1996 / Volume 77 / Number 4
power view Of neoplastic CCH showing diffuse and
nodular growth patterns The C-celk are morphologically distinct from the
adjacent follicular cells (xl25).
FIGURE 2. Diffuse neoplastic CCH. The follicular cells (arrow) are being
pushed upward and compressed by the larger neoplastic C-cells ( ~ 2 0 0 ) .
FIGURE 3. Nodular neoplastic CCH. The follicles have been obliterated
by neoplastic C-cells. Some of which show mild nuclear atypia ( ~ 2 0 0 ) .
Three of the seventeen patients had thyroidectomies after
the discovery of the mutated KET proto-oncogene in their
blood. Two of these specimens had only CCH, while the
third contained a 0.2 cm medullary carcinoma. Thyroidectomy in all Group I1 patients was for palpable masses
although three of these patients also had elevated serum
calcitonin. One was a female, age 19 years, with a papillary carcinoma. The second was a female, age 27 years,
with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, hypothyroidism, and elevated serum TSH, and the third was a man, age 37 years,
with a follicular adenoma.
Neoplastic CCH was characterized by clusters of
large, cytologically atypical round, polygonal, or spindleshaped, intrafollicular cells (Figs. 1-4). When present in
association with MTC, the cells were cytologically identical to the invasive component. These cells were recognizable on H & E sections and were associated with strong
FIGURE 4. Nodular and diffuse neoplastic CCH with strong calcitonin
positivity ( ~ 2 0 0 ) .
cytoplasmic staining for calcitonin (Fig. 4). Patterns of
involvement included focal with partial replacement of
the follicle, diffuse with complete replacement of the periphery of the follicle resulting in ring-like structures, or
nodular with complete replacement and filling of the follicular lumen. The diffuse and nodular patterns were
most common.
Physiologic CCH consisted of an increased number
of normal C-cells which resembled follicular cells and
were, therefore, not recognizable with certainty on routine H & E stains. In five cases, there were occasional
C-Cell Hyperplasia/Perry et al.
FIGURE 5. Physiologic CCH in a case of Hashimoto's thyroiditis. A few
scattered cells with abundant clear cytoplasm suggestive of C-cells are
present ( ~ 1 2 5 ) .
FIGURE 6. Higher magnification of Figure 5 showing the intrafollicular
large cells with clear cytoplasm suggestive of C-cells. Note that the nuclear
features of these cells are similar to those of adjacent follicular cell ( ~ 2 0 0 ) .
FIGURE 7. Calcitonin immunostaining of physiologic CCH reveals many
more C-cells than suspected from the H 8, E stain (x125).
large intrafollicular cells with abundant granular or clear
cytopl,ism suggestive of C-cells (Figs. 5 and 6). However,
the nuclei in these cells were similar to those of adjacent
follicular cells. These rare large cells identified o n H & E
stain did not reflect the large number of calcitonin positive C-cells seen with IHC (Fig. 7). These calcitonin immunostains revealed increased numbers of C-cells (see diagnostic criteria in Methods), most commonly in a diffuse
pattern. A nodular growth pattern was also seen in 2 of
20 examples of physiologic CCH. Physiologic CCH was
usually localized to one region of the thyroid and was
bilateral in only one case which was associated with Hashimoto's thyroiditis. In most cases associated with follicular neoplasms, the CCH was found in the non-neoplastic
thyroid tissue adjacent to the neoplasms.
Since the normal human C-cell was identified nearly 30
years ago,' there has been a lack of uniformity in criteria
for defining CCH. Criteria have varied from subjective
increases in C-cells as suggested by Wolfe et al.,"' to the
presence of C-cell clusters or nodule^,^^^^^^" to quantitative assessments including a minimum of 50 C-cells per
50 low power fields (lOOx)," 4 C-cells per low power
frequent grouping,'4 6 C-cells per follifields ( 1 0 0 ~ with
cle,I3 and 50 C-cells in at least one low power field
( ~ O O X ) .This
~ ~ problem has been further complicated by
the lumping of biologically different C-cell proliferations
under the umbrella designation of CCH. Our results support the hypothesis that physiologic CCH should be separated from neoplastic CCH because of morphologic differences. A comparison of these two forms of CCH, based
o n our findings and those of others, is compiled in Table 2.
Physiologic CCH was defined using previously published criteriaz5which consisted of identifying at least 50
calcitonin positive cells in one low power field ( 1 0 0 ~ ) .
Although arbitrary, this number of cells is greater than
that found in most normal subjects and has given rise to
hypercalcitoninemia. In this study, these hyperplastic Ccells could not be recognized with certainty on H & E
sections because of their morphologic similarities to follicular cells and histiocytes. Our cases were associated
with follicular thyroid neoplasms and Hashimoto's thyroiditis. In fact, we have now seen physiologic CCH in 2
out of 28 cases (7%) of Hashimoto's thyroiditis stained
with calcitonin by IHC. One of these was previously described.I9 Other reported associations include hyperparathyroidism,",'" previous hemithyroidectomy,*'' advanced
age,'53'band non-Hodgkin's lymphoma of the thyroid.21
Mechanisms involved in the development of this form of
CANCER February 15, 1996 / Volume 77 I Number 4
Physiologic vs. Neoplastic CCH
Biologic variables
Association with MEN IUFMTC
Horntonally induced
Genetic defects of chromosome 10
Probably not
Histologic variables
Detectable on H&E
Cytologic atypia
Seen adjacent to MTC
Staining with NCAM-MoAB735 (41)
Calcitonin reactivity
Usually nota
"Only one case was bilateral.
NCAhl-MoAb: neural cell adhesion molecule nioiioclonal antibody.
CCH are not well established. TSH overstimulation is a
suspected cause in neonates and in some cases of hypothyroidism. Physiologic CCH has been induced in laboratory animals via TSH overstiniulation.'"-"2 However, other
factors must also be important since, in our experience,
most patients with physiologic CCH do not have elevated
serum TSH levels. It is obvious that much remains to
be learned about the interactions between C-cells and
follicular cells. These interactions might explain the great
variations in the number of C-cells under physiologic and
pathologic conditions. In experimental animals, it has
been suggested that C-cells may play a role in the modulation of thyroid function by paracrine mechanisms.3j
Neoplastic CCH is the precursor of MTC and is most
commonly seen in patients with the familial forms of the
disease including MEN IIa, MEN IIb, and FMTC.""13 All
three of these familial disorders are associated with genetic defects in the paracentromeric region of chromosome 10.34-4"
Therefore, it is suspected that they may simply represent variants of the same disease. The gene responsible for MEN Ha, IIb, and FMTC has recently been
identified as the tyrosine receptor proto-oncogene known
as R E T . ~ " - ~ ~
Unlike physiologic CCH, neoplastic CCH is associated with cytologic atypia and is, therefore, recognizable
on routine H & E sections. Because of this feature, numerical criteria are irrelevant and unnecessary for the diagnosis. After all, neoplastic transformation is a qualitative,
not a quantitative, change. In fact, these atypical cells
resemble those of MTC both morphologically and antigenically. In addition, a recent study has shown that both
MTC and neoplastic CCH stain positively with the recently described neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM)
monoclonal antibody 735, whereas physiologic CCH gives
negative results (Table 2).43NCAM is a member of the
immunoglobulin family of membrane receptors implicated in cell adhesion. This molecule is found in a variety
of endocrine tumors and, therefore, is not a specific
marker of C-cells. Carney et al.' were correct in pointing
out the inaccuracy of the term CCH in describing the
precursor lesion of MTC in MEN 11. C-cell dysplasia or
medullary carcinoma in situ would be more biologically
correct. In this study, we refer to it as "neoplastic" CCH
despite its contradictions because we realize the difficulties in changing well established terminology.
During our review of medullary carcinomas, an example of neoplastic CCH was found adjacent to a small
sporadic MTC found incidentally in a laryngectomy specimen. This case, which was not included in the present
series, was unusual in that the tumor was only 0.4 cm in
greatest dimension. It should be noted that some patients
with medullary carcinomas thought to be sporadic, show
germ line RET proto-oncogene mutations, indicating that
their tumors are in fact familial.42Likewise, 11 of the 12
cases of familial MTC described in this study had adjacent
neoplastic CCH and most of the tumors were small (0.1
cm to 1.7 cm, mean 0.7 cm, median 0.4 cm). The remaining case of familial MTC was associated with a 3.0
cm tumor and no adjacent CCH was found. Therefore,
we believe that neoplastic CCH is the precursor of both
sporadic and familial MTC and that tumors of relatively
large size before detection (most sporadic cases) have
most likely overgrown the neoplastic CCH. If this were
the case, it would not be surprising that most cases of
neoplastic CCH would be seen in familial MTC where
multifocality is common and screening tests often result
in detection of small or microscopic tumors. A recent
study of proliferative activity in familial cases of CCH
and MTC, measured by proliferating cell nuclear antigen
(PCNA) and nucleolar organizing regions silver staining
(AgNOR), has shown a higher proliferative activity in
medullary carcinoma as compared to CCH.44This data
also supports the contention that CCH is the precursor
lesion of MTC in familial cases.
Whereas most publications on CCH have focused on
the neoplastic form, we believe that physiologic CCH is
probably more common. Also, it is not known how often
physiologic CCH is associated with hypercalcitoninemia
because serum calcitonin is usually not measured in
these cases. In this study, 3 cases demonstrated hypercalcitoninemia, and the remaining 16 either had no serum
calcitonin measurements or the information was unavailable. Barbot et a1.2Ddemonstrated hypercalcitoninemia
and CCH in 3 out of 24 patients with Hashimoto's thyroiditis. The important implication is that a patient with
a thyroid mass and hypercalcitoninemia may have something other than MTC (i.e., follicular neoplasm, Hashi-
C-Cell HyperplasialPerry et al.
moto’s thyroiditis, etc.). The natural history of physiologic
CCH is not known. Due to its reactive nature, it seems
logical to assume that it is a reversible condition. This is
in sharp contrast to the malignant potential of familial
CCH which usually progresses to medullary carcinoma,
further emphasizing the importance of separating physiologic from neoplastic CCH.
In conclusion, we have demonstrated that physiologic and neoplastic CCH are not only biologically distinct
entities, they are also morphologically distinct. Therefore,
different diagnostic criteria should be utilized for each
one. We believe that neoplastic CCH is the precursor of
familial and, most likely, sporadic MTC whereas physiologic CCH is a reactive process not associated with MTC.
Pathologists and clinicians should be aware of these distinctions and not lump the two entities under the same
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