Macroscopic precursor lesions of the pancreas represent a complex clinical management problem. Molecular characterization of pancreatic cysts has helped to confirm and refine clinical and pathologic classifications of these lesions, inform our understanding of tumorigenesis in the pancreas, and provide opportunities for preoperative diagnosis.


To review the pathologic classification of macroscopic cystic lesions of the pancreas: intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms (IPMNs), mucinous cystic neoplasms (MCNs), intraductal oncocytic papillary neoplasms (IOPNs), and intraductal tubulopapillary neoplasms (ITPNs), and to describe our current state of understanding of their molecular underpinnings, relationship to invasive carcinomas, and implications for diagnosis and prognostication.

Data Sources.—

We assessed the current primary literature and current World Health Organization Classification of Digestive System Tumours.


Macroscopic cystic lesions of the pancreas are morphologically and molecularly diverse. IPMNs and MCNs share mucinous cytoplasm with papillae. MCNs are defined by ovarian-type stroma. IOPNs have granular eosinophilic cytoplasm, prominent nucleoli, and complex, arborizing papillae. ITPNs demonstrate complex, back-to-back tubules and anastomosing papillae and lack prominent intracellular mucin. IPMNs and MCNs are characterized by driver mutations in KRAS/GNAS (IPMNs) and KRAS (MCNs), with later driver events in RNF43, CDKN2A, SMAD4, and TP53. In contrast, IOPNs and ITPNs have recurrent rearrangements in PRKACA/PRKACB and MAPK-associated genes, respectively. The recurrent alterations described in cysts provide an opportunity for diagnosis using aspirated cyst fluid. Molecular characterization of IPMNs shows a striking spatial and mutational heterogeneity, challenging traditional models of neoplastic development and creating challenges to interpretation of cyst fluid sequencing results.

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Author notes

This work was supported by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg∼Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy; the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center; the Rolfe Pancreatic Cancer Foundation; and the Emerson Collective Cancer Research Fund.

The author has no relevant financial interest in the products or companies described in this article.

Presented in part at the Companion Meeting of the Pancreatobiliary Pathology Society at the 2022 United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology Annual Meeting; March 20, 2022; Los Angeles, California.