Diagnostic significance of signet ring cells in fine-needle aspirates of the breast

Seema Sethi, Ricardo S. Cajulis, Sefik T. Gokaslan, Denise Frias-Hidvegi, Gordon H. Yu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) is a reliable and cost-effective procedure in the evaluation and management of breast lesions. One diagnostic dilemma that may sometimes arise is the finding of signet ring cells. The isolated finding of such cells in aspirate smears may be particularly problematic in cases of low cellularity or those with otherwise benign features. Although it is generally held that such cells are almost exclusively associated with carcinoma (particularly the lobular subtype), their significance in FNA smears has never been systematically evaluated. To establish their diagnostic utility, we evaluated aspirate smears from 150 cases of histologically proven benign (77) and malignant (73) breast lesions for the presence of signet ring cells, defined as those containing a prominent intracytoplasmic vacuole with nuclear displacement. Signet ring cells were identified in 71% of malignant cases (75% of ductal carcinomas and 71% of lobular carcinomas), mostly as single cells or within small, loosely cohesive tissue fragments. Such cells were also present in 6% of histologically proven benign lesions, most commonly within large tissue fragments. Many of these cells were proven to be vacuolated myoepithelial cells, based on histologic correlation and immunostaining results using anti-muscle-specific actin. On the basis of these findings, we conclude that (1) the presence of signet ring cells within small loose tissue fragments or as single cells in FNA smears should prompt close clinical follow-up (including repeat FNA and perhaps surgical biopsy), regardless of smear cellularity, (2) the presence of signet ring cells in cases of adenocarcinoma does not predict a particular tumor subtype, and (3) rare benign breast lesions may contain signet ring cells, particularly within large tissue fragments, and do not, in isolation, warrant surgical biopsy to exclude malignancy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)117-121
Number of pages5
JournalDiagnostic cytopathology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1997


  • breast carcinoma
  • cytology
  • fine-needle aspiration
  • signet ring cells

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Histology


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