Giant cell tumours (GCT) of bone, also known as osteoclastomas, are relatively common bone tumours, usually benign, that typically arise from the metaphysis of long bones and extend into the epiphysis.
GCTs are common, comprising 18-23% of benign bone neoplasms and 4-9.5% of all primary bone neoplasms 1. They almost invariably (97-99%) occur when the growth plate has closed and are therefore typically seen in early adulthood, with 80% of cases reported between the ages of 20 and 50, with a peak incidence between 20 and 30 1.
There is overall a mild female predilection, especially when located in the spine. However, malignant transformation is far more common in men (M:F of ~3:1) 1.
The presentation is not specific, typically presents insidiously and relates to bone pain, soft tissue mass, compression of adjacent structures or acutely with a pathological fracture.
Giant cell tumours are believed to result from an over-expression in RANK/RANKL signalling pathway with resultant over-proliferation of osteoclasts 6.
These tumours contain numerous thin-walled vascular channels predisposing to areas of haemorrhage and presumably related to the relatively frequent coexistence of aneurysmal bone cysts (ABC) found in 14% of cases 1-2,4.
Macroscopically, giant cell tumours are variable in appearance, depending on the amount of haemorrhage, the presence of coexistent aneurysmal bone cyst, and degree of fibrosis.
Microscopically they are characterised by prominent and diffuse osteoclastic giant cells and mononuclear cells ( round, oval, or polygonal and may resemble normal histiocytes). Frequent mitotic figures in the mononuclear cells may be seen, especially in pregnant women or those on the oral contraceptive pill (due to increased hormone levels) 1.
GCTs are low-grade tumours even in radiologically aggressive appearing lesions. Approximately 5-10% of GCTs are malignant 1. Sarcomatous transformation is seen, especially in radiotherapy treated inoperable tumours. Although rare (~5%), lung metastases are possible and have an excellent prognosis. Hence, this entity has been called benign metastasizing GCT 10-11.
It is important to realise that features may be difficult to interpret histologically with a relatively wide histological differential diagnosis (e.g. giant cell reparative granuloma, brown tumour, osteoblastoma, chondroblastoma, non-ossifying fibroma, and even osteosarcoma with abundant giant cells) 1, thus rendering radiology indispensable to the interpretation of these lesions.
They typically occur as single lesions. Although any bone can be affected, the most common sites are 1-2:
- around the knee: distal femur and proximal tibia: 50-65%
- distal radius: 10-12%
- sacrum: 4-9%
- vertebral body: 7%
- thoracic spine most common, followed by cervical and lumbar spine
Multiple locations: ≈ 1% (multiple lesions usually occur in association with Paget disease)
There are four characteristic radiographic features when a GCT is located in a long bone:
- occurs only with a closed growth plate
- abuts articular surface: 84-99% come within 1 cm of the articular surface 1
- well defined with non-sclerotic margin (though < 5% may show some sclerosis 8)
- eccentric: if large this may be difficult to assess
Plain film and CT
General radiographic features include:
- narrow zone of transition: a broader zone of transition is seen in more aggressive GCTs
- no surrounding sclerosis: 80-85%
- overlying cortex is thinned, expanded or deficient
- periosteal reaction is only seen in 10-30% of cases
- soft tissue mass is not infrequent
- pathological fracture may be present
- no matrix calcification/mineralisation
Typical signal characteristics include:
- low to intermediate solid component
- low signal periphery
- solid components enhance, helping distinguish GCT with an aneurysmal bone cyst (ABC) from a pure ABC 3-4
- some enhancement may also be seen in adjacent bone marrow
- heterogeneous high signal with areas of low signal intensity (variable) due to haemosiderin or fibrosis 9
- if an aneurysmal bone cyst component present, then fluid-fluid levels can be seen
- high signal in adjacent bone marrow thought to represent inflammatory oedema 4
- T1 C+ (Gd): solid components will enhance, helping differentiate from aneurysmal bone cysts 9
On bone scintigraphy, most GCT demonstrate increased uptake on delayed images, especially around the periphery, with a central photopenic region (doughnut sign). Increased blood pool activity is also seen, and can be seen in adjacent bones due to generalised regional hyperaemia (contiguous bone activity).
If performed, usually in the setting of preoperative embolization, angiography usually demonstrates a hypervascular tumour (two-thirds of cases) with the rest being hypovascular or avascular.
Treatment and prognosis
Classically, treatment is with curettage and packing with bone chips or polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA). Local recurrence is from the periphery of the lesion and has historically occurred in up to 40-60% of cases. Newer intraoperative adjuncts such as thermal or chemical treatment of the resection margins have lowered the recurrence rate to 2.5-10% 1. Early work on monoclonal antibodies as an adjuvant treatment targeted at tumour necrosis has shown impressive results 7. Wide local excision is associated with a lower recurrence rate but has greater morbidity.
There is a relatively wide differential similar to that of a lytic bone lesion:
- chondroblastoma: epiphyseal, usually in skeletally immature patients
- chondromyxoid fibroma: metaphyseal, with a well defined sclerotic margin, multiloculated bubbly appearance 3
- aneurysmal bone cyst (ABC): younger age group, but may co-exist with GCT; fluid-fluid levels
- non-ossifying fibroma: usually younger age group 4
- brown tumour: in the setting of hyperparathyroidism
- enchondroma: only really a consideration in lesions of small bones of the hand and foot 3
- haemophilic pseudotumour
- chondrosarcoma: typically older age group
- metastases and multiple myeloma
- intraosseous ganglion cysts
- desmoplastic fibroma
- 1. Murphey MD, Nomikos GC, Flemming DJ et-al. From the archives of AFIP. Imaging of giant cell tumor and giant cell reparative granuloma of bone: radiologic-pathologic correlation. Radiographics. 21 (5): 1283-309. Radiographics (full text) - Pubmed citation
- 2. Renton P. Orthopaedic radiology, pattern recognition and differential diagnosis. Informa HealthCare. (1998) ISBN:1853174343. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 3. Stacy GS, Peabody TD, Dixon LB. Mimics on radiography of giant cell tumor of bone. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2003;181 (6): 1583-9. AJR Am J Roentgenol (full text) - Pubmed citation
- 4. Meyers SP. MRI of bone and soft tissue tumors and tumorlike lesions, differential diagnosis and atlas. Thieme Publishing Group. (2008) ISBN:3131354216. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 5. Pathak HJ, Nardi PM, Thornhill B. Multiple giant cell tumors complicating Paget's disease. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 1999;172 (6): 1696-7. AJR Am J Roentgenol (citation) - Pubmed citation
- 6. Abbas AK, Kumar V, Fausto N et-al. Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease, Professional Edition E-Book, Expert Consult - Online and Print. W.B. Saunders Company. (2010) ISBN:1437721826. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 7. Chakarun C, Forrester D, Gottsegen C et-al. Giant Cell Tumor of Bone: Review, Mimics, and New Developments in Treatment. Radiographics. 2013;33 (1): 197-211. Radiographics (full text) - doi:10.1148/rg.331125089
- 8. Purohit S, Pardiwala DN. Imaging of giant cell tumor of bone. Indian J Orthop. 2007;41 (2): 91-6. doi:10.4103/0019-5413.32037 - Free text at pubmed - Pubmed citation
- 9. Pereira HM, Marchiori E, Severo A. Magnetic resonance imaging aspects of giant-cell tumours of bone. J Med Imaging Radiat Oncol. 2014;58 (6): 674-8. doi:10.1111/1754-9485.12249 - Pubmed citation
- 10. Muheremu A, Niu X. Pulmonary metastasis of giant cell tumor of bones. World J Surg Oncol.12 (1): 261. doi:10.1186/1477-7819-12-261 - Free text at pubmed - Pubmed citation
- 11. Viswanathan S, Jambhekar NA. Metastatic giant cell tumor of bone: are there associated factors and best treatment modalities?. Clin. Orthop. Relat. Res. 2010;468 (3): 827-33. doi:10.1007/s11999-009-0966-8 - Free text at pubmed - Pubmed citation
The differential diagnosis for bone tumours is dependent on the age of the patient, with a very different set of differentials for the paediatric patient.
- bone-forming tumours
- cartilage-forming tumours
- chondromyxoid fibroma
- fibrous bone lesions
- bone marrow tumours
- other bone tumours or tumour-like lesions
- aneurysmal bone cyst
- benign fibrous histiocytoma
- giant cell tumour of bone
- Gorham massive osteolysis
- haemophilic pseudotumour
- intradiploic epidermoid cyst
- intraosseous lipoma
- musculoskeletal angiosarcoma
- musculoskeletal haemangiopericytoma
- primary intraosseous haemangioma
- simple bone cyst
- impending fracture risk