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Desmoplastic Melanoma

last modified on: Mon, 11/20/2023 - 09:54

see also: Melanoma (Evaluation and Management)Melanoma Pathology Reporting Template

Pathologic Description Below posted 6-08-2011 (hh)

Swick B, Liu V and Stone M (Dermatopathology UIHC)

Desmoplastic and spindle cell variants of malignant melanoma are characterized by tumor cells with a spindle-shaped morphology within the dermis and/or subcutis (Huttenbach et al. 2002). Desmoplastic malignant melanoma is a histologic variant of spindle cell melanoma demonstrating fibrogenic properties in which the atypical invasive malignant spindle-shaped cells are dispersed in a prominent collagenous stroma (Skelton et al. 1995, Longacre 1996, Tsao et al. 1997, Busam et al. 2004). This spindle-shaped phenotype may also demonstrate neurosustentacular properties manifesting as perineural invasion and/or Schwann cell differentiation (Skelton et al. 1995). Spindled malignant melanocytic lesions are often described according to their predominant histologic features as spindle cell malignant melanoma, desmoplastic malignant melanoma, neurotropic/neural differentiated malignant melanoma, or any combination of these features (Tsao et al. 1997).

Clinically, desmoplastic malignant melanoma usually develops in the elderly on sun exposed skin and commonly presents as a slow growing infiltrated non-specific plaque or nodule that may be amelanotic in up to 50% of lesions (Longacre et al. 1996). In the absence of clinical pigmentation, the lesion is unfortunately often mistaken for a scar or cyst.

Histopathologically, desmoplastic malignant melanoma demonstrates a variably cellular spindle cell proliferation, usually non-pigmented, within a dense fibrous stroma  imparting a low-power “scar-like” appearance to the lesion (Tsao et al. 1997). The distribution of spindle cells is usually haphazard within the fibrous stroma (McCarthy et al. 2004). However, the cells may also form parallel fascicles or demonstrate a storiform pattern with associated collagen trapping mimicking a benign fibrous histiocytoma (McCarthy et al. 2004). In most cases, the proliferation is asymmetric and associated with patchy mononuclear cell inflammatory infiltrates throughout the tumor (Tsao et al. 1997). The cytologic atypia of the individual melanocytes varies from slight to marked and may be associated with only scant mitotic activity (Tsao et al. 1997, McCarthy et al. 2004). Fortunately, even in cases demonstrating subtle cytologic atypia, large hyperchromatic nuclei with peripheral margination of chromatin and a prominent central magenta colored nucleolus (typical of malignant melanoma), can often be found. In some cases, nests or fascicles of epithelioid appearing malignant melanocytes may be present and are often associated with a higher mitotic index (Skelton et al. 1995, Busam et al. 2004). An overlying atypical lentiginous junctional melanocytic proliferation, representing lentigo maligna, is present in only 30% of cases (McCarthy et al. 2004). In the absence of an atypical intraepidermal component, distinguishing desmoplastic malignant melanoma with a subtle pauci-cellular proliferation of melanocytes from a scar is difficult. At the time of diagnosis, desmoplastic melanomas are often deeply invasive with a Clark level of IV or V and an average Breslow thickness of 2.5 mm to 3.6 mm (Busam et al. 2004, Quinn et al. 1998). Additional poor prognostic features include neurotropism in approximately 30% of cases (Anstey et al. 1993).

Spindle cell malignant melanomas are S100 positive in 94% or greater of cases (Longacre et al. 1996). Other than in the associated epidermal component or within a second population of epithelioid appearing melanocytes, spindle cell melanoma is usually negative for Melan-A/Mart-1, HMB-45, tyrosinase, and microphthalmia transcription factor (McCarthy et al. 2004). In addition to S100, KBA.62 may prove to be another sensitive immunohistochemical marker for spindle cell melanoma. One recent study has demonstrated KBA.62 expression in 75% of desmoplastic malignant melanoma (Bernaba et al. 2011).

Spindle cell melanoma differs from conventional non spindle cell melanomas by a higher propensity for local recurrence and less frequent metastasis to regional lymph nodes at the time of presentation (Busam et al. 2004). In one study of 29 patients with spindle cell melanoma (Breslow thickness 1.6 mm to 8 mm), 28 had negative sentinel lymph node biopsies (Thelmo et al. 2001). In contrast to conventional malignant melanoma, spindle cell malignant melanomas demonstrate behavior similar to soft tissue sarcoma with preferential metastasis to the lungs over regional lymph nodes (Busam et al. 2004, Jaroszewski et al. 2001). An exception to this is the presence of an epithelioid cell component within a spindle cell melanoma. These lesions, in addition to mimicking the behavior a typical spindle cell melanoma, may demonstrate a higher rate of local regional lymph node metastasis and a worse overall prognosis compared to a malignant melanoma with a spindle-cell morphology alone (Skelton et al. 1995, Busam et al. 2004).


Huttenbach Y, Prieto VG, Reed JA. Desmoplastic and spindle cell melanomas express protein markers of the neural crest but not of later committed stages of Schwann cell differentiation. J Cutan Pathol 2002;29:562.

Skelton HG, Smith KJ, Laskin WB, McCarthy WF, Gagnier JM, Graham JH, Lupton GP. Desmoplastic malignant melanoma. J Am Acad Dermatol 1995;32:717.

Longacre T, Egbert B, Rouse R. Desmoplastic and spindle-cell malignant melanoma: an immunohistochemical study. Am J Surg Pathol 1996;20:1489.

Tsao H, Sober AJ, Barnhill RL. Desmoplastic neurotropic melanoma. Semin Cutan Med Surg 1997;16:131.

Busam KJ, Mujumdar U, Hummer AJ, Nobrega J, Hawkins WG, Coit DG, Brady MS. Cutaneous desmoplastic melanoma reappraisal of morphologic heterogeneity and prognostic factors. Am J Surg Pathol 2004;28:1518.

McCarthy SW, Scoyler RA, Palmer AA. Desmoplastic melanoma: a diagnostic trap for the unwary. Pathology 2004;36:445.

Quinn MJ, Crotty KA, Thompson JF, Coates AS, O’Brien CJ, McCarthy WH. Desmoplastic and desmoplastic neurotropic melanoma: experience with 280 patients. Cancer 1998;83:1128.

Anstey A, McKee P, Jones EW. Desmoplastic malignant melanoma: a clinicopathological study of 25 cases. Br J Dermatol 1993;129:359.

Bernaba BN, Vogiatzis PI, Binder SW, Cassarino DS. Potentially useful markers for desmoplastic melanoma: an analysis of KBA.62, p-AKT, and Ezrin. Am J Dermatopathol 2011;33:333.

Thelmo MC, Sagebiel RW, Treseler PA, Morita ET, Nguyen LH, Kashani-Sabet M, Leong SP. Evaluation of sentinel lymph node status in spindle cell melanomas. J Am Acad Dermatol 2001;44:451.

Jaroszewski DE, Pockaj BA, DiCaudo DJ, Bite U. The clinical behavior of desmoplastic melanoma. Am J Surg 2001;182:590.



Additional References

Barnhill, R. L., & Gupta, K. (2009). Unusual variants of malignant melanoma. Clinics in Dermatology, 27(6), 564-587.

Porras, B. H., & Cockerell, C. J. (1997). Cutaneous malignant melanoma: Classification and clinical diagnosis. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, 16(2), 88-96.

Conley J, Lattes R, Orr W: Desmoplastic malignant melanoma (a rare variant of spindle cell melanoma). Cancer 28:914-936, 1971