Distinguishing between T-cell and natural killer (NK)-cell neoplasms could be difficult given their overlapping immunophenotype. In this study, we investigated whether a flow cytometry assay with cytoplasmic staining for CD3 could be used for this purpose.
Flow cytometry immunophenotyping was performed on 19 surface CD3 (sCD3)-negative mature T-cell neoplasms, 10 sCD3-positive mature T-cell neoplasms, 13 mature NK-cell neoplasms, and 19 normal controls. In addition to routine antibody panels (CD2, sCD3, CD4, CD5, CD7, CD8, CD16, CD45, CD56, CD57, CD94, CD158a, CD158b, CD158e, NKG2A TCRγ/δ), cytoplasmic staining for a monoclonal CD3 antibody (clone SK7/Leu-4) was assessed in all cases. A molecular study for T-cell receptor (TCR) gene rearrangement and an immunohistochemical study for TCRβ were performed.
Our data showed all T-cell neoplasms were uniformly positive for cytoplasmic CD3 (cCD3) regardless of sCD3 expression, whereas 85% of NK-cell neoplasms completely lacked cCD3 expression. The 2 cases with classic NK-cell immunophenotype but partial cCD3 expression showed no molecular genetic features of T-cell lineage by TCR gene rearrangement studies.
Uniform cCD3 positivity and homogeneous cCD3 negativity highly suggest T-cell and NK lineage, respectively. When partial cCD3 expression is encountered, additional confirmatory studies should be pursued for the most accurate lineage assignment.

© American Society for Clinical Pathology, 2020. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.