Prognostic value of apoptotic index in cutaneous basal cell carcinomas of head and neck

S. Staibano, L. Lo Muzio, E. Mezza, G. Argenziano, L. Tornillo, G. Pannone, G. De Rosa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common type of human cancer, often locally invasive, and following a benign clinical course. However, a proportion of BCCs do recur after treatment, causing extensive local tissue destruction, seldom metastasizing. Morphological methods to unequivocally distinguish the aggressive forms of these tumors (BCC2) from the ordinary ones (BCC1) have so far been lacking. Apoptosis, or programmed cell death, is thought to be important for the death of tumor cells in various stages of carcinogenesis. We analyzed the extent of apoptosis in BCCs of head and neck in a morphological, morphometric, and electron-microscopic study, to establish on a retrospective basis, the relative frequency of recurrence of tumors showing different apoptotic rates. We found that BCC1 showed lower apoptotic index (AI) than BCC2 [BCC1: AI from 2.03 to 10.45% (mean value: 5.98%) BCC2: AI from 21.91 up to 43.82% (mean value: 39.82%)]. The morphometric analysis of both BCC1 and BCC2 revealed significant differences between the values concerning nuclear area, length, perimeter, and roundness of the apoptotic cells with respect to the 'viable' neoplastic cells. Electron-microscopy confirmed that the features of morphological apoptotic cells were characteristic of programmed cell death. We hypothesized that low apoptotic rates in BCC1 could be indicative of a good prognosis. In fact, this corresponded to an 'expansive' but not still invasive neoplastic state. In this phase, however, the tumor cells may constitute the target for genetic changes triggered by environmental physical or chemical mutagenic agents, such as UV rays. BCC2, then, could be the result of newly selected mutated neoplastic cellular clones, with more aggressive biological behavior. The high apoptotic level found in BCC2 could thus be used as an indirect alarm signal from pathologists. This hypothesis seems to be supported by most of the current data in the literature and by the clinical outcome of BCC2 of our series. In our opinion, routine evaluation of apoptosis in BCCs could be proposed to facilitate their sub-classification, contributing toward the evaluation of the prospective outcome of the individual patients.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)541-547
Number of pages7
JournalOral Oncology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1999


  • Apoptosis
  • Apoptotic index
  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Electron-microscopic study
  • Head and neck
  • Length
  • Morphological study
  • Morphometric study
  • Nuclear area
  • Perimeter
  • Prognosis
  • Roundness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology


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