The evolution of the diagnosis and understanding of primitive and embryonic neoplasms in children: Living through an epoch

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Approximately 30% of malignant neoplasms in children are dysontogenetic tumors whose pathologic features resemble or recapitulate those of the developing organ or tissue of origin. Archetypes include classic neuroblastoma, Wilms' tumor, and embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. This review traces the history of the principal types of dysontogenetic neoplasms and the primitive round cell tumors, Ewing's sarcoma, and peripheral primitive neuroectodermal tumor. Retinoblastoma, neuroblastoma, and Wilms' tumor were first described in the 19th century but with several different appellations than those we use today. Although some progress was made in the surgical management of Wilms' tumor during the 1940s and 1950s, most of these unique solid neoplasms of childhood were seen as essentially untreatable and inevitably fatal; surgery and perhaps irradiation were the principal therapeutic offerings. The folic acid analogue, aminopterin, was reported in 1948 as inducing the first complete but temporary remission in acute childhood leukemia. The chemotherapeutic era began shortly thereafter with effective chemotherapy in the management of Wilms' tumor with the introduction of dactinomycin. Pathologists were no longer restricted to being purveyors of the death sentence; they were now responsible for differentiating one type of primitive and embryonic neoplasm from another by using a variety of ancillary techniques, including tissue culture, electron microscopy, immunohistochemistry, and cytogenetics. Favorable or unfavorable morphologic types and subtypes of tumors were defined and, together with the pathologic staging, became incorporated into the therapeutic plan and prognostic assessment. During the past 40 years, these tumors progressed from being virtually treatment resistant to having an overall 5-year survival of 70% or greater. Through the cooperative efforts of pediatric hematologists/oncologists, pediatric surgeons, radiation therapists, and pathologists, the primitive and embryonic neoplasms of childhood are now viewed as some of the most treatable and curable of cancers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)669-685
Number of pages17
JournalModern Pathology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 1998


  • Cytogenetics
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Pediatric neoplasms
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma
  • Tumor suppressor genes
  • Wilms' tumor


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