Molecular and cellular biology of neuroendocrine lung tumors: Evidence for separate biological entities

Dorian R. A. Swarts*, Frans C. S. Ramaekers, Ernst-Jan M. Speel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Pulmonary neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) are traditionally described as comprising a spectrum of neoplasms, ranging from low grade typical carcinoids (TCs) via the intermediate grade atypical carcinoids (ACs) to the highly malignant small cell lung cancers (SCLCs) and large cell neuroendocrine carcinomas (LCNECs). Recent data, however, suggests that two categories can be distinguished on basis of molecular and clinical data, i.e. the high grade neuroendocrine (NE) carcinomas and the carcinoid tumors. Bronchial carcinoids and SCLCs may originate from the same pulmonary NE precursor cells, but a precursor lesion has only been observed in association with carcinoids, termed diffuse idiopathic pulmonary neuroendocrine cell hyperplasia. The occurrence of mixed tumors exclusively comprising high grade NE carcinomas also supports a different carcinogenesis for these two groups. Histopathologically, high grade NE lung tumors are characterized by high mitotic and proliferative indices, while carcinoids are defined by maximally 10 mitoses per 2 mm(2) (10 high-power fields) and rarely have Ki67-proliferative indices over 10%. High grade NE carcinomas are chemosensitive tumors, although they usually relapse. Surgery is often not an option due to extensive disease at presentation and early metastasis, especially in SCLC. Conversely, carcinoids are often insensitive to chemo- and radiation therapy, but cure can usually be achieved by surgery. A meta-analysis of comparative genomic hybridization studies performed for this review, as well as gene expression profiling data indicates separate clustering of carcinoids and carcinomas. Chromosomal aberrations are much more frequent in carcinomas, except for deletion of 11q, which is involved in the whole spectrum of NE lung tumors. Deletions of chromosome 3p are rare in carcinoids but are a hallmark of the high grade pulmonary NE carcinomas. On the contrary, mutations of the multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) gene are restricted to carcinoid tumors. Many of the differences between carcinoids and high grade lung NETs can be ascribed to tobacco consumption, which is strongly linked to the occurrence of high grade NE carcinomas. Smoking causes p53 mutations, very frequently present in SCLCs and LCNECs, but rarely in carcinoids. It further results in other early genetic events in SCLCs and LCNECs, such as 3p and 17p deletions. Smoking induces downregulation of E-cadherin and associated epithelial to mesenchymal transition. Also, high grade lung NETs display higher frequencies of aberrations of the Rb pathway, and of the intrinsic and extrinsic apoptotic routes. Carcinoid biology on the other hand is not depending on cigarette smoke intake but rather characterized by aberrations of other specific genetic events, probably including Menin or its targets and interaction partners. This results in a gradual evolution, most likely from proliferating pulmonary NE cells via hyperplasia and tumorlets towards classical carcinoid tumors. We conclude that carcinoids and high grade NE lung carcinomas are separate biological entities and do not comprise one spectrum of pulmonary NETs. This implies the need to reconsider both diagnostic as well as therapeutic approaches for these different groups of malignancies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)255-271
JournalBiochimica et Biophysica Acta-reviews on Cancer
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012


  • Neuroendocrine lung tumors
  • Carcinoids
  • Small cell lung cancer
  • Large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma
  • Carcinogenesis
  • Tumor biology

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