Comprehensive epithelial biomarker analysis of malignant mesothelioma: EpCAM positivity is a potential diagnostic pitfall

Cancer Cytopathology 2023 April 17 [Link]

Yili Zhu, Simone Moore, Aihui Wang, Elizabeth George, Grace M Allard, Diane M Libert, Alarice C Lowe


Background: Epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM) is frequently used to distinguish carcinoma from background mesothelial cells during cytologic examination of body cavity fluids. Previously, the authors identified one malignant mesothelioma case with strong and diffuse membranous EpCAM staining, making it indistinguishable from carcinoma.

Methods: In this study, the authors evaluated all available effusion specimens from patients with malignant mesothelioma, including the above-mentioned index case, obtained at Stanford Health Care, from 2011 to 2021 (N = 17) as well as control cases (N = 5). Analyses included an immunohistochemistry (IHC) assay for EpCAM and claudin-4, a multiplexed immunofluorescent (IF) assay for EpCAM, and an RNA in situ hybridization assay targeting EpCAM.

Results: The authors detected EpCAM positivity of variable intensity and percentage in four malignant mesothelioma cases (23.5%; although only two showed positivity for the epithelial-specific IHC marker MOC31 in ≥40% of cells) and claudin-4 negativity in all cases, with two cases displaying focal and weak claudin-4 staining in <1% of cells. Multiplexed IF staining on the cases with EpCAM IHC positivity showed strong, membranous EpCAM staining in one of four cases. RNA in situ hybridization also was used to assess the correlation between EpCAM positivity by IHC/IF and RNA expression levels. Strong EpCAM RNA expression was detected in the three malignant mesothelioma cases.

Conclusions: The current findings revealed that a subset of epithelioid malignant mesothelioma cases mimic or exhibit the immunophenotypic features of carcinoma when evaluating for EpCAM only. Additional biomarker testing, such as claudin-4, may help avoid this potential pitfall to yield accurate diagnoses.