Blastic natural killer cell leukemia/lymphoma: A clinicopathologic study

Joseph A. DiGiuseppe, Diane C. Louie, James E. Williams, David T. Miller, Constance A. Griffin, Risa B. Mann, Michael J. Borowitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

162 Scopus citations


The classification of natural killer (NK)-cell and NK-like T-cell malignancies has undergone significant evolution in recent years. Although examples of NK-cell tumors resembling acute leukemia have been described anecdotally as blastic, blastoid, or monomorphic NK-cell leukemia/lymphoma (NKL/L), the clinical and pathologic features of these tumors have not been systematically defined. We report four patients with blastic NKL/L and describe the clinical, pathologic; and immunophenotypic findings in these cases. All patients were elderly (58-82 years) and presented with cutaneous plaques. Two patients also had adenopathy, and three patients had marrow involvement at presentation. Biopsy of cutaneous lesions showed atypical superficial and deep dermal lymphoid infiltrates. Involved lymph nodes were architecturally effaced by an interfollicular infiltrate with blastic cytologic features. In Wright-Giemsa-stained blood or marrow smears, tumor cells had finely distributed nuclear chromatin, many with nucleoli, and variable amounts of cytoplasm. In contrast to many NK and NK-like T-cell disorders, azurophilic cytoplasmic granules were absent or inconspicuous. The tumor cells were immunophenotypically distinctive. They expressed intermediate density CD45, as is characteristic of blasts; in addition, the cells were positive for HLA-DR, CD2, CD4, and the NK-associated antigen CD56. Surface CD3, cytoplasmic CD3, and CD5 were negative in all cases tested, whereas CD7 was expressed in two cases. In formalin-fixed tissue, tumor cells marked with antibodies to CD43, but not with other T- or B-lineage-related antibodies. All three cases studied for Epstein-Barr viral RNA by in situ hybridization were negative. Although treatments varied, all three patients with clinical follow-up died within months of the diagnosis. The clinical course in two patients culminated in an overtly leukemic phase. These findings suggest that blastic NKL/L represents a distinct clinicopathologic entity, characterized by cutaneous, nodal, and marrow involvement by blastic cells with immunophenotypic characteristics of true NK cells. The disease afflicts elderly patients, pursues an aggressive course, and may culminate in overt leukemia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1223-1230
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Journal of Surgical Pathology
Issue number10
StatePublished - 1997


  • CD56
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Leukemia
  • Lymphoma
  • Natural killer cell

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Surgery
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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