Overview of the 2022 WHO Classification of Paragangliomas and Pheochromocytomas

Ozgur Mete, Sylvia L. Asa, Anthony J. Gill, Noriko Kimura, Ronald R. de Krijger, Arthur Tischler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

120 Citations (Scopus)


This review summarizes the classification of tumors of the adrenal medulla and extra-adrenal paraganglia as outlined in the 5th series of the WHO Classification of Endocrine and Neuroendocrine Tumors. The non-epithelial neuroendocrine neoplasms (NENs) known as paragangliomas produce predominantly catecholamines and secrete them into the bloodstream like hormones, and they represent a group of NENs that have exceptionally high genetic predisposition. This classification discusses the embryologic derivation of the cells that give rise to these lesions and the historical evolution of the terminology used to classify their tumors; paragangliomas can be sympathetic or parasympathetic and the term pheochromocytoma is used specifically for intra-adrenal paragangliomas that represent the classical sympathetic form. In addition to the general neuroendocrine cell biomarkers INSM1, synaptophysin, and chromogranins, these tumors are typically negative for keratins and instead have highly specific biomarkers, including the GATA3 transcription factor and enzymes involved in catecholamine biosynthesis: tyrosine hydroxylase that converts L-tyrosine to L-DOPA as the rate-limiting step in catecholamine biosynthesis, dopamine beta-hydroxylase that is present in cells expressing norepinephrine, and phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase, which converts norepinephrine to epinephrine and therefore can be used to distinguish tumors that make epinephrine. In addition to these important tools that can be used to confirm the diagnosis of a paraganglioma, new tools are recommended to determine genetic predisposition syndromes; in addition to the identification of precursor lesions, molecular immunohistochemistry can serve to identify associations with SDHx, VHL, FH, MAX, and MEN1 mutations, as well as pseudohypoxia-related pathogenesis. Paragangliomas have a well-formed network of sustentacular cells that express SOX10 and S100, but this is not a distinctive feature, as other epithelial NENs also have sustentacular cells. Indeed, it is the presence of such cells and the association with ganglion cells that led to a misinterpretation of several unusual lesions as paragangliomas; in the 2022 WHO classification, the tumor formerly known as cauda equina paraganglioma is now classified as cauda equina neuroendocrine tumor and the lesion known as gangliocytic paraganglioma has been renamed composite gangliocytoma/neuroma and neuroendocrine tumor (CoGNET). Since the 4th edition of the WHO, paragangliomas have no longer been classified as benign and malignant, as any lesion can have metastatic potential and there are no clear-cut features that can predict metastatic behavior. Moreover, some tumors are lethal without metastatic spread, by nature of local invasion involving critical structures. Nevertheless, there are features that can be used to identify more aggressive lesions; the WHO does not endorse the various scoring systems that are reviewed but also does not discourage their use. The identification of metastases is also complex, particularly in patients with germline predisposition syndromes, since multiple lesions may represent multifocal primary tumors rather than metastatic spread; the identification of paragangliomas in unusual locations such as lung or liver is not diagnostic of metastasis, since these may be primary sites. The value of sustentacular cells and Ki67 labeling as prognostic features is also discussed in this new classification. A staging system for pheochromocytoma and extra-adrenal sympathetic PGLs, introduced in the 8th Edition AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, is now included. This paper also provides a summary of the criteria for the diagnosis of a composite paragangliomas and summarizes the classification of neuroblastic tumors. This review adopts a practical question–answer framework to provide members of the multidisciplinary endocrine oncology team with a most up-to-date approach to tumors of the adrenal medulla and extra-adrenal paraganglia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)90-114
Number of pages25
JournalEndocrine Pathology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2022


  • Adrenal medulla hyperplasia
  • Alpha-inhibin
  • Carbonic anhydrase
  • Choline acetyltransferase
  • Composite paraganglioma
  • Dopamine beta-hydroxylase
  • Ganglioneuroma
  • MAX
  • Molecular immunohistochemistry
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Paraganglioma
  • Pheochromocytoma
  • SDHB
  • Tyrosine hydroxylase
  • World Health Organization
  • Adrenal Gland Neoplasms/pathology
  • Humans
  • Repressor Proteins
  • Paraganglioma/genetics
  • Pheochromocytoma/pathology
  • Paraganglioma, Extra-Adrenal/diagnosis


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