Keratinizing squamous dysplasia of the larynx

by Jason Wasserman MD PhD FRCPC
February 1, 2023

What is keratinizing squamous dysplasia of the larynx?

Keratinizing squamous dysplasia is a pre-cancerous disease involving the tissue on the surface of the larynx. The larynx is an organ found at the top of the neck behind the tongue. Keratinizing squamous dysplasia is considered a pre-cancerous disease because it can over time turn into a type of laryngeal cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.  Pathologists divide keratinizing squamous dysplasia into three grades – mild, moderate, and severe – and the risk of developing cancer is highest with severe squamous dysplasia.

What does “keratinizing” mean?

The word keratinizing means that the abnormal squamous cells are producing a specialized protein called keratin. This causes the cells to look bright pink when examined under the microscope. Keratinization is abnormal in the larynx.

What causes keratinizing squamous dysplasia in the larynx?

The most common cause of squamous dysplasia in the larynx is smoking. Other causes include excessive alcohol consumption, immune suppression, and prior radiation to the neck.

How is the diagnosis of keratinizing squamous dysplasia made?

The diagnosis of keratinizing squamous dysplasia is usually made after a small sample of tissue is removed in a procedure called a biopsy. The biopsy is usually performed because your doctor saw an abnormal-looking area of tissue during an examination of your larynx. Your pathology report will probably say what part of the larynx was sampled in the biopsy.

What does keratinizing squamous dysplasia look like under the microscope?

Keratinizing squamous dysplasia starts from specialized squamous cells in a thin layer of tissue called the epithelium. Compared to healthy squamous cells, the abnormal squamous cells in an area of keratinizing squamous dysplasia are larger, darker, and disorganized. Pathologists use the word hyperchromatic to describe cells that look darker than normal cells. Large clumps of genetic material called nucleoli may also be seen in the nucleus of the abnormal cells.

squamous dysplasia

How is keratinizing squamous dysplasia in the larynx graded?

Pathologists divide keratinizing squamous dysplasia in the larynx into three levels or grades called mild, moderate, and severe. Pathologists determine the grade by comparing the abnormal squamous cells to normal, healthy squamous cells in the larynx. Another name for mild keratinizing squamous dysplasia is low-grade dysplasia while moderate and severe keratinizing squamous dysplasia are grouped together and called high-grade dysplasia.

The grade of dysplasia in the larynx is very important because it is related to the risk of developing cancer in the future. Mild (low-grade) dysplasia has a low risk of turning into cancer and is often left untreated. Moderate and severe (high-grade) dysplasia is associated with a much higher risk of progressing to cancer and patients with this condition are usually offered treatment to remove the diseased tissue.

What is a margin?

A margin is any healthy tissue that was cut by the surgeon in order to remove the abnormal area of tissue from your body. Whenever possible, surgeons will try to cut healthy tissue well outside of the abnormal area to reduce the risk that any abnormal cells will be left behind after the tissue is removed.

Your pathologist will carefully examine all the margins in your tissue sample to see how close the abnormal cells are to the edge of the cut tissue. Margins will only be described in your report after the entire abnormal area of tissue has been removed. Margins are not described in a report after a biopsy has been performed.

A negative margin means that squamous dysplasia was not seen at the very edge of the cut tissue. A margin is considered positive when squamous dysplasia is seen at the very edge of the cut tissue. A positive margin is associated with a higher risk that the disease will come back (recur) in the same site after treatment.

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