Lymph Node and Spleen

Department of Pathology, Sinai Hospital of Baltimore Pathology, Baltimore, MD, USA


LymphomaLymphoblasticHodgkinLymphocyticMantle cellMarginal zoneFollicular lymphomaFlow cytometryBurkittHairy cell leukemia

The original version of this chapter was revised. An erratum to this chapter can be found at DOI 10.​1007/​978-3-319-59211-4_​33

An erratum to this publication is available online at ​doi.​org/​10.​1007/​978-3-319-59211-4_​33

Normal Histology of the Lymph Node

The normal or benign lymph node is composed of a collection of follicles and interfollicular areas surrounded by sinuses (spaces mostly filled with histiocytes), vessels, and sometimes fat. Lymph flows from the subcapsular sinuses, through the medullary sinuses in the lymph node, and out the hilum. The follicles represent areas of maturing B cells (CD20+), whereas the interfollicular areas are mostly mature T cells (CD3+).

Follicles begin as primary follicles or aggregates of antigen-naïve B cells. As they mature into secondary follicles, they acquire germinal centers, which are visible as targetoid nodules within the follicles (Figure 21.1). The dark outer rim of the follicle is the displaced remains of the primary follicle and is called the mantle zone, still composed of antigen-naïve B cells. Once exposed to antigen, the B cells move to the germinal center and become centroblasts, large cells with primitive-looking nuclei. From there they either mature into centrocytes or die through apoptosis . Finally, B cells leave the germinal center genetically altered to circulate as memory B cells, which may ultimately differentiate into plasma cells if they meet their antigen.


Figure 21.1.
Normal lymph node . The sinuses are visible mainly as loose collections of histiocytes (1). Primary follicles (2) are collections of B cells lacking germinal centers. Secondary follicles contain germinal centers (3). The space between the follicles, or paracortex (4), is composed of T cells and shows a characteristic spotted or mottled appearance. Inset: A normal germinal center should be polarized, with large centroblasts clustered at one side of the follicle (arrowhead), creating a lopsided appearance.

Other normal germinal center components include the supporting follicular dendritic cells and tingible body macrophages, which clean up the apoptotic debris. These macrophages appear as relatively clear cells within the germinal center, with visible “dust specks” in the cytoplasm (Figure 21.2). Germinal centers may be found in any hotbed of lymphocyte activity outside the lymph nodes, but the morphology and staining pattern are preserved.


Figure 21.2.
Germinal center . Other components of a benign germinal center include tingible body macrophages (circle) and large centroblasts with prominent nucleoli (arrow). The germinal center is surrounded by the mature B cells of the mantle zone (arrowhead).

The paracortex, or interfollicular area, may occupy most of the lymph node in some cases. This absence of obvious follicles is not necessarily a reason for concern. The benign paracortex should have a mottled appearance due to the scattered pale histiocytes among the T cells.

Lymphoma , Conceptually

The word lymphoma means a malignancy of the lymphoid system and usually implies a solid tumor mass, whether it is in the lymph nodes or an extranodal site. However, remember that many of the lymphomas can have an associated liquid phase, or leukemia, in which the neoplastic cells invade the bone marrow and enter the peripheral blood (Table 21.1). Among the myeloid leukemias, discussed in Chapter 20, solid tumor disease is uncommon but exists (such as the chloroma or granulocytic sarcoma).

Table 21.1.
Lymphomas and associated leukemias.

Myeloid line

Lymphoid line

Cell of origin

Solid tumors





Myeloid sarcoma


B lymphoblastic lymphoma

B lymphoblastic leukemia

T lymphoblastic lymphoma

T lymphoblastic leukemia

Mature cells

Myeloid sarcoma

CML and other myeloproliferative disorders




Mantle cell

Marginal zone

Hairy cell leukemia

Mycosis fungoides

Sezary syndrome



Activated cells


Leukemias, by definition, involve the marrow and peripheral blood, while lymphomas are solid tumors. In many cases a single malignancy may be either solid or leukemic

ALCL anaplastic large cell lymphoma, AML acute myeloid leukemia, CLL chronic lymphocytic leukemia, CML chronic myeloid leukemia, DLBCL diffuse large B cell lymphoma, SLL small lymphocytic lymphoma

This chapter covers several major categories of lymphomas:

  • High-grade (aggressive) lymphomas: neoplasms of activated B cells and T cells (activated means exposed to the target antigen) or that resemble activated cells.

  • Low-grade B cell lymphomas (neoplasms of mature B cells): Like the chronic leukemias, these are indolent and simmering and are diseases of adults.

  • Lymphoblastic lymphoma (neoplasms of precursor cells or lymphoblasts): These cells resemble myeloblasts and are the solid tumor counterpart to the acute lymphoblastic leukemias (ALLs) .

  • Hodgkin lymphomas: As a group, these are neoplasms in which the neoplastic cells are a minority population, with a variable mixed inflammatory background. The prototypical tumor cell is the Reed–Sternberg cell, of which there are many variants.

  • Others include T cell neoplasms and non-B, non-T cell types.

Many of the lymphomas can be placed into categories by nuclear morphology, and learning to recognize the “look” of each group is important, although actual diagnosis is primarily by flow, immunohistochemistry (IHC), and molecular studies. The lymphoblastic lymphomas have immature chromatin, which means the texture is very fine grained, with small nucleoli and an indistinct nuclear membrane, much like the myeloblasts in acute myeloid leukemia. On H&E stain, they may be mistaken for small cell carcinoma or a primitive sarcoma. The low-grade neoplasms resemble normal lymphocytes , with small condensed nuclei. The high-grade lymphomas show very carcinoma-like nuclei: they are large (compared with lymphocytes) and pleomorphic, with prominent nucleoli and coarse nuclear membranes. Hodgkin lymphomas are the hardest to identify, usually, as the diagnostic cells (Reed–Sternberg cells and variants) may be few and far between. However, Reed–Sternberg cells do resemble high-grade nuclei in their chromatin pattern.

Recognizing a lymphoma in an extranodal site, especially a tumor of unknown origin, takes practice. Clues to lymphoma include a relatively homogeneous, sheet-like growth of malignant cells; a lack of cell-to-cell cohesiveness or architecture; nuclei that are highly irregular in shape or contour; and an accentuation of cell density around vessels (especially in the brain, Figure 21.3). Most should stain for CD45, the common leukocyte antigen, or for specific B or T markers. Positive staining for melanoma markers or cytokeratins rules out lymphoma. Sarcoma markers should be used with caution, though, as many of the familiar stains (CD117, CD34, etc.) also stain hematopoietic elements.


Figure 21.3.
Diffuse large B cell lymphoma in the central nervous system. The tendency of the malignant cells to cluster around blood vessels (arrows) is typical of lymphoma within the brain.

Diffuse Large B Cell Lymphoma

As the most common lymphoma, you will see diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL) frequently. DLBCL is essentially a final common pathway in lymphoma; although it can arise spontaneously, it can also arise from the setting of any other low-grade B cell lymphoma or from Hodgkin lymphoma. The “diffuse” is used here as an opposite of follicular or nodular, and it implies the sheet-like growth. The “large” should be interpreted with caution—what is large in hematopathology may still be fairly small next to a squamous cell.

DLBCL is not usually mistaken for a benign entity; the nuclei are too abnormal. However, it may be mistaken for other types of malignancy, especially given its tendency to crop up in extranodal sites. As described earlier, the nuclei are very irregular in contour, with cleared-out or vesicular chromatin leaving a prominent nucleolus and thick nuclear rim (Figure 21.4). Folded, or cleaved, nuclei are common. The cells may have more cytoplasm than lymphocytes and therefore a lower N/C ratio.


Figure 21.4.
Diffuse large B cell lymphoma . The usual appearance is that of sheets of discohesive cells that do not form any recognizable architectural patterns (such as glands or trabeculae). The cells typically have large nuclei, irregular and prominent nuclear membranes, and nucleoli (arrow). Compare the cell size to a background lymphocyte (arrowhead).

Although DLBCL was formerly a single category in the World Health Organization classification, the splitters are gaining on it. One division is between those DLBCLs that are of germinal center cell origin, such as a follicular lymphoma gone bad, and those of activated B cell (or non-germinal center) origin. The latter have the worse prognosis; the distinction is through an IHC staining algorithm . Other subtypes of DLBCL are the so-called double- and triple-hit lymphomas , which are identified through their rearrangements of the MYC, BCL2, and/or BCL6 genes. Such lymphomas are now called high-grade B cell lymphomas (HGBL) , with the genetic rearrangements specified. Additional variants of DLBLC are identified based on unique molecular events and/or viral associations; this list grows longer each year.

Burkitt Lymphoma

Burkitt lymphoma is a distinct type of high-grade B cell lymphoma that is identified by its high mitotic rate (Ki67 index of nearly 100%) and its population of medium-sized, densely packed lymphocytes with intermixed macrophages and apoptotic bodies (Figure 21.5). The scattered macrophages on a blue background give rise to the “starry sky” analogy. The individual cells are atypical enough that they would not be mistaken for normal mature lymphocytes, however. Burkitt lymphoma is EBV-associated in some cases, and most cases involve a MYC translocation.


Figure 21.5.
Burkitt lymphoma . This low-power view shows the typical “starry sky” pattern of Burkitt lymphoma, which is a densely packed tumor with scattered tingible body macrophages (arrows).

Follicular Lymphoma

Follicular lymphoma is the second most common non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Together DLBCL and follicular lymphoma account for over half of non-Hodgkin lymphomas. Follicular lymphoma is defined by a translocation in which BCL2 (an antiapoptotic factor) is abnormally upregulated. BCL2 usually turns off in germinal centers, making the centroblasts and centrocytes susceptible to apoptosis. Abnormal retention of BCL2 leads to cells that do not die, more or less, hence the malignancy. Follicular lymphoma appears as a nodular proliferation of back-to-back neoplastic follicles that fill the lymph node (Figures 21.6 and 21.7). Within these follicles are a mixture of neoplastic centrocytes (smaller) and centroblasts (larger); the relative proportion determines the grade of the lymphoma. Follicular lymphoma can also have areas of diffuse growth (the opposite of nodular), can spread to the marrow, and can transform to DLBCL. When circulating as a leukemia, the folded (cleaved) centrocyte nucleus has been compared to a “baby’s butt.”
Jan 30, 2018 | Posted by in PATHOLOGY & LABORATORY MEDICINE | Comments Off on Lymph Node and Spleen

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