The natural history of hemangioblastomas of the central nervous system in patients with von Hippel—Lindau disease

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  • 1 Surgical Neurology Branch, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Genetic Epidemiology Branch, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland; and Department of Neurosurgery, Naval Medical Center, San Diego, California
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Object. The goals of this study were to define the natural history and growth pattern of hemangioblastomas of the central nervous system (CNS) that are associated with von Hippel—Lindau (VHL) disease and to correlate features of hemangioblastomas that are associated with the development of symptoms and the need for treatment.

Methods. The authors reviewed serial magnetic resonance images and clinical histories of 160 consecutive patients with VHL disease who harbored CNS hemangioblastomas and serially measured the volumes of tumors and associated cysts.

Six hundred fifty-five hemangioblastomas were identified in the cerebellum (250 tumors), brainstem (64 tumors, all of which were located in the posterior medulla oblongata), spinal cord (331 tumors, 96% of which were located in the posterior half of spinal cord), and the supratentorial brain (10 tumors). The symptoms were related to a mass effect. A serial increase in hemangioblastoma size was observed in cerebellar, brainstem, and spinal cord tumors as patients progressed from being asymptomatic to symptomatic and requiring surgery (p < 0.0001). Twenty-one (72%) of 29 symptom-producing cerebellar tumors had an associated cyst, whereas only 28 (13%) of 221 nonsymptomatic cerebellar tumors had tumor-associated cysts (p < 0.0001). Nine (75%) of 12 symptomatic brainstem tumors had associated cysts, compared with only four (8%) of 52 nonsymptomatic brainstem lesions (p < 0.0001). By the time the symptoms appeared and surgery was required, the cyst was larger than the causative tumor; cerebellar and brainstem cysts measured 34 and 19 times the size of their associated tumors at surgery, respectively. Ninety-five percent of symptom-producing spinal hemangioblastomas were associated with syringomyelia.

The clinical circumstance was dynamic. Among the 88 patients who had undergone serial imaging for 6 months or longer (median 32 months), 164 (44%) of 373 hemangioblastomas and 37 (67%) of 55 tumor-associated cysts enlarged. No tumors or cysts spontaneously diminished in size. Symptomatic cerebellar and brainstem tumors grew at rates six and nine times greater, respectively, than asymptomatic tumors in the same regions. Cysts enlarged seven (cerebellum) and 15 (brainstem) times faster than the hemangioblastomas causing them. Hemangioblastomas frequently demonstrated a pattern of growth in which they would enlarge for a period of time (growth phase) and then stabilize in a period of arrested growth (quiescent phase). Of 69 patients with documented tumor growth, 18 (26%) harbored tumors with at least two growth phases. Of 160 patients with hemangioblastomas, 34 patients (median follow up 51 months) were found to have 115 new hemangioblastomas and 15 patients new tumor-associated cysts.

Conclusions. In this study the authors define the natural history of CNS hemangioblastomas associated with VHL disease. Not only were cysts commonly associated with cerebellar, brainstem, and spinal hemangioblastomas, the pace of enlargement was much faster for cysts than for hemangioblastomas. By the time symptoms appeared, the majority of mass effect—producing symptoms derived from the cyst, rather than from the tumor causing the cyst. These tumors often have multiple periods of tumor growth separated by periods of arrested growth, and many untreated tumors may remain the same size for several years. These characteristics must be considered when determining the optimal timing of screening for individual patients and for evaluating the timing and results of treatment.

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Contributor Notes

Address reprint requests to: Edward H. Oldfield, M.D., Surgical Neurology Branch, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, Building 10, Room 5D37, Bethesda, Maryland 20892–1414. email: OldfielE@ninds.nih.gov.
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