Tech Talk

Ex Vivo Confocal Microscopy: A Diagnostic Tool for Skin Malignancies

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Confocal microscopy is an imaging tool that uses a laser system to image the skin noninvasively with cellular resolution. With both in vivo and ex vivo systems, tissue can be imaged rapidly without damaging the sample. Herein, we discuss the capabilities of the ex vivo confocal microscope and its implementation for treatment and management of cutaneous malignancies.

Practice Points

  • Confocal microscopy is an imaging tool that can be used both in vivo and ex vivo to aid in the diagnosis and management of cutaneous neoplasms, including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as inflammatory dermatoses.
  • Ex vivo confocal microscopy can be used in both reflectance and fluorescent modes to render diagnosis in excised tissue or check surgical margins.
  • Both in vivo and ex vivo confocal microscopy produces images with cellular resolution with a main limitation being depth of imaging.



Skin cancer is diagnosed in approximately 5.4 million individuals annually in the United States, more than the total number of breast, lung, colon, and prostate cancers diagnosed per year.1 It is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.2 The 2 most common forms of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), accounting for 4 million and 1 million cases diagnosed each year, respectively.3 With the increasing incidence of these skin cancers, the use of noninvasive imaging tools for detection and diagnosis has grown.

Ex vivo confocal microscopy is a diagnostic imaging tool that can be used in real-time at the bedside to assess freshly excised tissue for malignancies. It images tissue samples with cellular resolution and within minutes of biopsy or excision. Ex vivo confocal microscopy is a versatile tool that can assist in the diagnosis and management of skin malignancies such as melanoma, BCC, and SCC.

Reflectance vs Fluorescence Mode

Excised lesions can be examined in reflectance or fluorescence mode in great detail but with slightly varying nuclear-to-dermis contrasts depending on the chromophore that is targeted. In reflectance mode (reflectance confocal microscopy [RCM]), melanin and keratin act as endogenous chromophores because of their high refractive index relative to water,4,5 which allows for the visualization of cellular structures of the skin at low power, as well as microscopic substructures such as melanosomes, cytoplasmic granules, and other cellular organelles at high power. Although an exogenous contrast agent is not required, acetic acid has the capability to highlight nuclei, enhancing the tumor cell-to-dermis contrast in RCM.6 Acetic acid is clinically used as a predictor for certain skin and mucosal membrane neoplasms that blanch when exposed to the solution. In the case of RCM, acetic acid increases the visibility of nuclei by inducing the compaction of chromatin. For the acetowhitening to be effective, the sample must be soaked in the solution for a specific amount of time, depending on the concentration.7 A concentration between 1% and 10% can be used, but the less concentrated the solution, the longer the time of soaking that is required to achieve sufficiently bright nuclei.6

The contrast with acetic acid, however, is quite weak when the tissue is imaged en face, or along the horizontal surface of the sample, due to the collagen in the dermal layer, which has a high reflectance index. This issue is rectified when using the confocal microscope in the fluorescence mode with an exogenous fluorescent dye as a nuclear stain. Fluorescence confocal microscopy (FCM), results in a stronger nuclear-to-dermal contrast because of the role of contrast agents.8 The 1000-fold increase in contrast between nuclei and dermis is the result of dye agents that preferentially bind to nuclear DNA, of which acridine orange is the most commonly used.5,8 Basal cell carcinoma and SCC tumor cells can be visualized with FCM because they appear hyperfluorescent when stained with acridine orange.9 The acridine orange–stained cells display bright nuclei, while the cytoplasm and collagen remains dark. A positive feature of acridine orange is that it does not alter the tissue sample during freezing or formalin fixation and thus has no effect on subsequent histopathology that may need to be performed on the sample.10

High-Resolution Images Aid in Diagnosis

After it is harvested, the tissue sample is soaked in a contrast agent or dye, if needed, depending on the confocal mode to be used. The confocal microscope is then used to take a series of high-resolution individual en face images that are then stitched together to create a final mosaic image that can be up to 12×12 mm.6,11 With a 200-µm depth visibility, confocal microscopy can capture the cellular structures in the epidermis, dermis, and (if compressed enough) subcutaneous fat in just under 3 minutes.12

The images produced through confocal microscopy have an excellent correlation to frozen histological sections and can aid in the diagnosis of many epidermal and dermal malignancies including melanoma, BCC, and SCC. New criteria have been established to aid in the interpretation of the confocal images and identify some of the more common skin cancers.5,12,13 Basal cell carcinoma samples imaged through fluorescence and reflectance in low-power mode display the distinct nodular patterns with well-demarcated edges, as seen on classical histopathology. In the case of FCM, the cells that make up the tumor display hyperfluorescent areas consistent with nucleated cells that are stained with acridine orange. The main features that identify BCC on FCM images include nuclear pleomorphism and crowding, peripheral palisading, clefting of the basaloid islands, increased nucleus-to-cytoplasm ratio, and the presence of a modified dermis surrounding the mass known as the tumoral stroma5,12 (Figure).

Ex vivo confocal image of a nodular basal cell carcinoma using acridine orange as a contrast agent. Note the well-demarcated baseloid tumor islands in the dermis.

In addition to fluorescence and a well-defined tumor silhouette, SCC under FCM displays keratin pearls composed of keratinized squames, nuclear pleomorphism, and fluorescent scales in the stratum corneum that are a result of keratin formation.5,13 The extent of differentiation of the SCC lesion also can be determined by assessing if the silhouette is well defined. A well-defined tumor silhouette is consistent with the diagnosis of a well-differentiated SCC, and vice versa.13 Ex vivo RCM also has been shown to be useful in diagnosing malignant melanomas, with melanin acting as an endogenous chromophore. Some of the features seen on imaging include a disarranged epithelium, hyperreflective roundish and dendritic pagetoid cells, and large hyperreflective polymorphic cells in the superficial chorion.14


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