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The utility of cytokeratin 5/6 in the recognition of cutaneous spindle cell squamous cell carcinoma


John R. Goldblum, M.D., Cleveland Clinic Foundation, 9500 Euclid Avenue L25,
Cleveland OH 44195, USA
Tel: +1 216 444 8238
Fax: +1 216 445 6967


Background: Cutaneous spindle cell squamous cell carcinoma (SSCC) is a challenging diagnosis since it may be difficult to distinguish from spindle cell melanoma, leiomyosarcoma and atypical fibroxanthoma. Furthermore, it may be difficult to demonstrate epithelial differentiation by a traditional immunohistochemical panel. We performed an expanded immunohistochemical evaluation of ultrastructurally documented SSCC to assess its utility in diagnosing this entity.

Methods: We identified 16 cases of SSCC that were composed predominantly of spindle-shaped cells and with ultrastructural evidence of epithelial differentiation (i.e. at least rudimentary cell junctions). Immunohistochemical analysis using antibodies to a variety of cytokeratins (AE1/3, K903, CK5/6) and S-100 protein was performed. The extent of immunostaining was graded on a scale of 0 to 4+ (0: no staining; 1+: ≤25%; 2+: 26–50%; 3+: 51–75%; 4+: >75%).

Results: Of the 16 cases, 6 expressed AE1/3 (38%), 8 expressed K903 (50%) and 11 (69%) expressed CK5/6. Six cases were positive for all three CK markers and two cases were positive for both K903 and CK5/6 but negative for AE1/3. Three cases (19%) stained for CK5/6 without any staining for AE1/3 or K903. Five cases (31%) were negative for all epithelial markers. The extent of CK5/6 staining was either similar to or greater than K903 staining in 7 of 8 cases that stained with both markers. All 16 cases were negative for S-100 protein.

Conclusions: Including CK5/6 in the initial battery of immunostains performed on a cutaneous spindle cell neoplasm can help demonstrate epithelial differentiation in SSCC, even in the absence of AE1/3 or K903 staining. However, some cases of cutaneous SSCC can only be confirmed ultrastructurally, as up to one-third may not show evidence of epithelial differentiation using an expanded immunohistochemical panel.