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Tumor classification: molecular analysis meets Aristotle

Jules J Berman

Author Affiliations

Cancer Diagnosis Program, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, USA

BMC Cancer 2004, 4:10  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-4-10

Published: 17 March 2004



Traditionally, tumors have been classified by their morphologic appearances. Unfortunately, tumors with similar histologic features often follow different clinical courses or respond differently to chemotherapy. Limitations in the clinical utility of morphology-based tumor classifications have prompted a search for a new tumor classification based on molecular analysis. Gene expression array data and proteomic data from tumor samples will provide complex data that is unobtainable from morphologic examination alone. The growing question facing cancer researchers is, "How can we successfully integrate the molecular, morphologic and clinical characteristics of human cancer to produce a helpful tumor classification?"


Current efforts to classify cancers based on molecular features ignore lessons learned from millennia of experience in biological classification. A tumor classification must include every type of tumor and must provide a unique place for each tumor within the classification. Groups within a classification inherit the properties of their ancestors and impart properties to their descendants. A classification was prepared grouping tumors according to their histogenetic development. The classification is simple (reducing the complexity of information received from the molecular analysis of tumors), comprehensive (providing a place for every tumor of man), and consistent with recent attempts to characterize tumors by cytogenetic and molecular features. The clinical and research value of this historical approach to tumor classification is discussed.


This manuscript reviews tumor classification and provides a new and comprehensive classification for neoplasia that preserves traditional nomenclature while incorporating information derived from the molecular analysis of tumors. The classification is provided as an open access XML document that can be used by cancer researchers to relate tumor classes with heterogeneous experimental and clinical tumor databases.