The understanding of molecular alterations of tumors has severely changed the concept of classification in all fields of pathology. The availability of high-throughput technologies such as next-generation sequencing allows for a much more precise definition of tumor entities. Also in the field of brain tumors a dramatic increase of knowledge has occurred over the last years partially calling into question the purely morphologically based concepts that were used as exclusive defining criteria in the WHO 2007 classification.
Review of the WHO 2016 classification of brain tumors as well as a search and review of publications in the literature relevant for brain tumor classification from 2007 up to now.
The idea of incorporating the molecular features in classifying tumors of the central nervous system led the authors of the new WHO 2016 classification to encounter inevitable conceptual problems, particularly with respect to linking morphology to molecular alterations. As a solution they introduced the concept of a “layered diagnosis” to the classification of brain tumors that still allows at a lower level a purely morphologically based diagnosis while partially forcing the incorporation of molecular characteristics for an “integrated diagnosis” at the highest diagnostic level. In this context the broad availability of molecular assays was debated. On the one hand molecular antibodies specifically targeting mutated proteins should be available in nearly all neuropathological laboratories. On the other hand, different high-throughput assays are accessible only in few first-world neuropathological institutions. As examples oligodendrogliomas are now primarily defined by molecular characteristics since the required assays are generally established, whereas molecular grouping of ependymomas, found to clearly outperform morphologically based tumor interpretation, was rejected from inclusion in the WHO 2016 classification because the required assays are currently only established in a small number of institutions.
In summary, while neuropathologists have now encountered various challenges in the transitional phase from the previous WHO 2007 version to the new WHO 2016 classification of brain tumors, clinical neurooncologists now face many new diagnoses allowing a clearly improved understanding that could offer them more effective therapeutic opportunities in neurooncological treatment. The new WHO 2016 classification presumably presents the highest number of modifications since the initial WHO classification of 1979 and thereby forces all professionals in the field of neurooncology to intensively understand the new concepts. This review article aims to present the basic concepts of the new WHO 2016 brain tumor classification for neurosurgeons with a focus on neurooncology.