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New WHO Reporting System for Lung Cytopathology to Enhance Diagnostic Accuracy

By LabMedica International staff writers
Posted on 13 Jun 2024

Lung cancer continues to be the most common cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide and ranks as the second most frequently diagnosed cancer in both men and women. The role of lung cytopathology, which involves examining specimens such as sputum, bronchial brushings (BB), bronchial washings (BW), bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL), and fine needle aspiration biopsy (FNAB), is crucial for early and accurate diagnosis, thus enhancing treatment efficacy. The introduction of endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS) has significantly improved the diagnostic capabilities of FNAB by facilitating simultaneous diagnosis and staging. With the increasing significance of accurate lung tumor classification for molecular testing, there is a crucial need for the implementation of standardized terminology and reporting standards in lung cytopathology.

The World Health Organization (WHO, Geneva, Switzerland) has introduced a new reporting system designed to standardize this communication to enhance diagnostic accuracy, facilitate research, and encourage clinical trial participation. This system, the WHO Reporting System for Lung Cytopathology, developed in collaboration with the International Academy of Cytology (IAC, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, Lyon, France), is the first of its kind aimed at standardizing the reporting of lung cytopathology specimens globally. It categorizes findings into five diagnostic categories—Insufficient/Inadequate/Non-diagnostic, Benign/Negative for Malignancy, Atypical, Suspicious for Malignancy, and Malignant. Each category is defined by specific cytomorphologic criteria, includes an estimated risk of malignancy (ROM), and offers guidelines for clinical management.

Image: Diff-Quik stained smear from lung FNAB (Photo courtesy of Guoping Cai, Darin Dolezal, Ivana Kholová)
Image: Diff-Quik stained smear from lung FNAB (Photo courtesy of Guoping Cai, Darin Dolezal, Ivana Kholová)

The WHO system provides specific clinical management recommendations for each diagnostic category. For instance, a diagnosis of "Malignant" often triggers further diagnostic actions such as bronchoscopy or imaging, possibly followed by EBUS- or CT-guided FNAB. Treatment may vary from surgical resection to systemic treatment, depending on the tumor's characteristics and condition of the patient. For benign results, ongoing monitoring and follow-up are generally recommended, while atypical or suspicious results may require additional testing to refine the diagnosis. The system also highlights the importance of ancillary tests like molecular and genetic testing, crucial for precise diagnoses and personalized treatment plans. These ancillary tests, including immunohistochemistry (IHC) and molecular assays, are critical for confirming diagnoses and are pivotal for identifying targeted therapies, particularly for lung adenocarcinoma and other specific cancer subtypes.

The WHO Reporting System for Lung Cytopathology is a pivotal step in achieving standardized, accurate, and effective lung cancer diagnostics. By providing distinct categories and criteria, it not only improves diagnostic consistency and patient management but also promotes ongoing research. The inclusion of ancillary testing and consideration for resource variability across different settings ensures that the system is applicable worldwide. Additionally, this standardization aids in gathering robust data for epidemiological studies and clinical trials, crucial for progressing our understanding and treatment of lung cancer. As this system becomes more widely adopted, it is expected to markedly enhance outcomes for lung cancer patients and contribute significantly to the global fight against this prevalent disease. Further refinement and research will continue to improve its clinical value and impact, maintaining its relevance in the field of lung cancer diagnostics.

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