Mucoepidermoid carcinoma of the oropharynx: a tumor type with a propensity for regional metastasis unrelated to histologic grade

Pooja Navale, Lisa M. Rooper, Justin A. Bishop, William H. Westra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The designation “mucoepidermoid tumor” is a historic one used in reference to a form of mucoepidermoid carcinoma (MEC) that was believed to be benign. This bygone notion was based on the observation that the vast majority of MECs arising from the intraoral minor salivary glands behave in a benign fashion, particularly when they do not exhibit high grade features. There has been a recent move to partition the oral vault into the oral cavity proper and the oropharynx based on awareness that these compartments are distinct, and that similar tumor types arising from these compartments may behave in dramatically different ways (e.g, oral cavity squamous cell carcinoma vs oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma). The pathology databases from 3 large academic medical centers were searched for cases of MECs arising in the oropharynx. Relevant clinical and pathological information was collected from the medical records. Twenty-five cases were identified. They were from 18 females (72%) and 7 males (28%), ranging in age from 31 to 88 years (median, 61). Twenty-two (88%) were classified as low (n = 12) or intermediate (n = 10) grade, and 3 (12%) as high grade. Most arose from the base of tongue (n = 24), but one arose from the lateral pharyngeal wall. The median tumor size was 2.0 cm. Nineteen patients underwent neck node dissections. Of these, 13 (68%) had histologically documented lymph node metastases. MECs that lacked high grade features were almost as likely to metastasize as those with high grade features (50% vs 66%, Fisher exact = 1). Of 3 metastases tested, 2 harbored the MAML2 gene fusion. MECs arising from the base of tongue are associated with an alarmingly high rate of nodal metastases. This behavior cannot be predicted by histologic grading or MAML2 status. The propensity to metastasize may to some degree reflect the unique microenvironment of the oropharynx.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-5
Number of pages5
JournalHuman Pathology
StatePublished - Nov 2019


  • Base of tongue
  • Lymph node metastasis
  • MAML2
  • Mucoepidermoid carcinoma
  • Oropharyngeal carcinoma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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