Representativeness of initial skin biopsies showing pure desmoplastic melanoma: implications for management

R.V. Rawson, I.A. Vergara, J.R. Stretch, R.P.M. Saw, J.F. Thompson, S.N. Lo, R.A. Scolyer, K.J. Busam Pathology, 2023, ISSN 0031-3025


Desmoplastic melanoma (DM) is an uncommon subtype of melanoma with distinct clinicopathological features. It is classified into pure desmoplastic melanoma (PDM) when the proportion of desmoplastic melanoma is ≥90% of the dermally-invasive component, and mixed desmoplastic melanoma (MDM) when the proportion of desmoplastic melanoma is <90%. Studies have reported a lower sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB)-positivity rate in PDM compared to MDM and non-DM. As a result, some have recommended not performing SLNB in PDM patients. When PDM is identified in a partial biopsy of a melanoma, there is a risk that sampling bias may under-recognise MDM, but to the best of our knowledge this has not been previously assessed or quantified. The aim of this study was to assess the concordance of the proportion of desmoplastic melanoma in an initial partial biopsy of PDM with the proportion in the entire tumour following complete excision, in patients with cutaneous melanoma. A secondary aim was to determine how frequently this potentially resulted in a patient not receiving a SLNB. Seventy-eight cases of cutaneous melanoma were identified from the Melanoma Institute Australia (MIA) database and 23 cases from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre (MSKCC), where an initial biopsy contained PDM and a subsequent wide excision had residual invasive melanoma. Clinicopathological features were analysed in all patients, including whether a SLNB was performed, the results of SLNB, and any subsequent recurrence. Ninety percent (91/101) of cases were still classified as PDM in the complete wide excision specimen while 10% (10/101) of cases were reclassified as MDM, which was a significant change in classification of final desmoplastic melanoma subtype (p<0.001). The proportion of desmoplastic melanoma was also significantly different between the initial and excisional biopsies (p=0.004). Forty-eight (48/101) patients had a SLNB, of which two (4.5%) were positive for metastatic melanoma; both cases were PDM in the excision specimen. Of the 10 cases demonstrating MDM in the excision specimen, the initial biopsy was a punch biopsy in six cases, shave biopsy in two cases and subcutaneous tissue was sampled in two patients (one punch biopsy, one incisional biopsy). Four of these 10 patients underwent SLNB which was negative in all cases. Twenty-two patients developed recurrence in the follow-up period (median 30 months, range 1-192 months), three with MDM in their excision specimen. One patient did not have a SLNB and developed regional lymph node recurrence. In this study there was a 10% risk that the percentage of desmoplastic melanoma in an initial biopsy of PDM was not representative of the entire lesion, resulting in reclassification as MDM in the excision specimen. If a SLNB is not performed in such cases, a positive SLNB may be missed (one patient in our study) which could impact treatment options for the patient. We recommend caution in not offering a SLNB in the setting of an initial biopsy of PDM if the biopsy is small compared with the overall lesion. If a SLNB is not procured at the time of wide excision in such cases, the SLNs should still be mapped by lymphoscintigraphy to facilitate careful follow up and to enable earlier detection and treatment of nodal disease.