What Did We Learn from the Molecular Biology of Adrenal Cortical Neoplasia? From Histopathology to Translational Genomics

C. Christofer Juhlin, Jérôme Bertherat, Thomas J. Giordano, Gary D. Hammer, Hironobu Sasano, Ozgur Mete

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Approximately one-tenth of the general population exhibit adrenal cortical nodules, and the incidence has increased. Afflicted patients display a multifaceted symptomatology—sometimes with rather spectacular features. Given the general infrequency as well as the specific clinical, histological, and molecular considerations characterizing these lesions, adrenal cortical tumors should be investigated by endocrine pathologists in high-volume tertiary centers. Even so, to distinguish specific forms of benign adrenal cortical lesions as well as to pinpoint malignant cases with the highest risk of poor outcome is often challenging using conventional histology alone, and molecular genetics and translational biomarkers are therefore gaining increased attention as a possible discriminator in this context. In general, our understanding of adrenal cortical tumorigenesis has increased tremendously the last decade, not least due to the development of next-generation sequencing techniques. Comprehensive analyses have helped establish the link between benign aldosterone-producing adrenal cortical proliferations and ion channel mutations, as well as mutations in the protein kinase A (PKA) signaling pathway coupled to cortisol-producing adrenal cortical lesions. Moreover, molecular classifications of adrenal cortical tumors have facilitated the distinction of benign from malignant forms, as well as the prognostication of the individual patients with verified adrenal cortical carcinoma, enabling high-resolution diagnostics that is not entirely possible by histology alone. Therefore, combinations of histology, immunohistochemistry, and next-generation multi-omic analyses are all needed in an integrated fashion to properly distinguish malignancy in some cases. Despite significant progress made in the field, current clinical and pathological challenges include the preoperative distinction of non-metastatic low-grade adrenal cortical carcinoma confined to the adrenal gland, adoption of individualized therapeutic algorithms aligned with molecular and histopathologic risk stratification tools, and histological confirmation of functional adrenal cortical disease in the context of multifocal adrenal cortical proliferations. We herein review the histological, genetic, and epigenetic landscapes of benign and malignant adrenal cortical neoplasia from a modern surgical endocrine pathology perspective and highlight key mechanisms of value for diagnostic and prognostic purposes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)102-133
Number of pages32
JournalEndocrine Pathology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Mar


  • Adrenal cortical adenoma
  • Adrenal cortical carcinoma
  • Cushing syndrome
  • Molecular genetics
  • Mutation
  • Primary aldosteronism
  • Prognostication
  • Protein kinase A signaling pathway

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology


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