Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors (GISTs)

Updated: Sep 28, 2016
  • Author: Michael A Choti, MD, MBA, FACS; Chief Editor: N Joseph Espat, MD, MS, FACS  more...
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Practice Essentials

Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) account for less than 1% of GI tumors, but they are the most common mesenchymal neoplasms of the GI tract. GISTs are usually found in the stomach or small intestine but can occur anywhere along the GI tract and rarely have extra-GI involvement. See the image below.

Shown here is a gastric gastrointestinal stromal t Shown here is a gastric gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST). This is a gross specimen following partial gastrectomy. Note the submucosal tumor mass with the classic features of central umbilication and ulceration.

Signs and symptoms

Up to 75% of GISTs are discovered when they are less than 4 cm in diameter and are either asymptomatic or associated with nonspecific symptoms. They are frequently diagnosed incidentally during radiologic studies or endoscopic or surgical procedures performed to investigate the GI tract disease or to treat an emergent condition such as hemorrhage, obstruction, or perforated viscus. Clinical manifestations of GISTs are as follows:

  • Vague, nonspecific abdominal pain or discomfort (most common)
  • Early satiety or a sensation of abdominal fullness
  • Palpable abdominal mass (rare)
  • Malaise, fatigue, or exertional dyspnea with significant blood loss
  • Focal or widespread signs of peritonitis (with perforation)

Obstructive signs and symptoms of GISTs can be site-specific, as follows:

  • Dysphagia with an esophageal GIST
  • Constipation and a distended, tender abdomen with a colorectal GIST
  • Obstructive jaundice with a duodenal GIST

See Presentation for more detail.


No laboratory test can specifically confirm or rule out the presence of a GIST. The following tests are generally ordered in the workup of patients who present with nonspecific abdominal symptoms; abdominal pain; or complications such as hemorrhage, obstruction, or perforation:

  • Complete blood cell count
  • Coagulation profile
  • Serum chemistry studies
  • BUN and creatinine
  • Liver function tests, amylase and lipase values
  • Type, screen, and crossmatch
  • Serum albumin

Imaging studies

Plain abdominal radiography:

  • Nonspecific
  • May be part of an emergent workup
  • Abnormal gas patterns, including dilated loops of bowel or free extraluminal air, may be seen with bowel obstruction or perforation

Barium and air (double-contrast) series:

  • Frequently provides only limited information
  • Can usually detect GISTs that have grown to a size sufficient to produce symptoms
  • Barium swallow for patients with dysphagia
  • Barium enema for patients with constipation, decreased stool caliber, or colonic manifestations
  • GISTs appear as an elevated, sharply demarcated filling defect
  • The overlying mucosa typically has a smooth contour unless ulceration has developed

Computed tomography scans of the abdomen and pelvis:

  • Essential for the diagnosis and staging of GISTs
  • Provides comprehensive information regarding the size and location of the tumor and its relationship to adjacent structures
  • Can also be used to detect the presence of multiple tumors and of metastatic spread

CT characteristics of small GISTs (< 5 cm) are as follows [1] :

  • Sharply demarcated
  • Homogeneous density
  • Mainly exhibit intraluminal growth patterns

CT characteristics of intermediate GISTs (5-10 cm) are as follows [1] :

  • Irregular shape
  • Heterogeneous density
  • An intraluminal and extraluminal growth pattern
  • Signs of biological aggression, sometimes including adjacent organ infiltration [1]

CT characteristics of large GISTs (>10 cm) are as follows [1] :

  • Irregular margins
  • Heterogeneous densities
  • Locally aggressive behavior
  • Distant and peritoneal metastases

CT criteria associated with high-grade histology and increased mortality:

  • Tumor larger than 11.1 cm
  • Irregular surface contours
  • Indistinct margins
  • Adjacent organ invasion
  • Heterogeneous enhancement
  • Hepatic or peritoneal metastasis

Magnetic resonance imaging:

  • Like CT scanning, MRI can depict tumors and yield information about surrounding structures
  • Can also be used to detect the presence of multiple tumors and metastases
  • Less well studied than CT for diagnosing GISTs, but appears equally sensitive [2]
  • GISTs may appear hypointense on T2-weighted images

Positron emission tomography scanning with 2-[F-18]-fluoro-2-deoxy-D-glucose has the following uses:

  • Detection of metastatic disease
  • Monitoring of response to adjuvant therapy (eg, imatinib mesylate)


  • Frequently performed early in the workup of patients with GI bleeding, abdominal pain, or GI obstructive symptoms from GISTs
  • Endoscopic features of GISTs include the suggestion of a smooth submucosal mass displacing the overlying mucosa
  • Ulceration or bleeding of the overlying mucosa from pressure necrosis may be present
  • Problematic for biopsy specimen collection because of the submucosal location of GISTs
  • Endoscopic biopsy results yield a diagnosis in less than 50% of cases
  • Obtaining a repeat biopsy in the same site as a prior biopsy may increase the diagnostic yield

Endoscopic ultrasonography (EUS):

  • Allows localization of lesions and their characterization by ultrasonography
  • Fine-needle aspiration biopsy specimens may be obtained under sonographic guidance
  • GISTs typically appear as a hypoechoic mass in the layer corresponding to the muscularis propria
  • Complementary with CT
  • More accurate than CT in differentiating benign from malignant lesions
  • Allows a more comprehensive evaluation of the mass and the surrounding structures than CT

EUS characteristics of malignant GISTs include the following:

  • Size larger than 4 cm (the only independent predictor)
  • Heterogeneous echogenicity
  • Internal cystic areas
  • Irregular borders on the extraluminal surfaces

EUS features that may help differentiate gastric GISTs from leiomyomas are as follows [3] :

  • Inhomogenicity
  • Hyperechogenic spots
  • A marginal halo
  • Higher echogenicity than the surrounding muscle layer

Aspects of EUS-guided biopsy are as follows:

  • Biopsy provides definitive diagnosis
  • Biopsy may be required when preoperative therapy is needed in cases where the tumor is unresectable or only marginally resectable
  • Biopsy may not be necessary if the tumor is surgically resectable and preoperative medical therapy is not required

See Workup for more detail.


Surgery is the definitive therapy for patients with GISTs, as follows:

  • Radical and complete surgical extirpation offers the only chance for cure
  • Surgery is also indicated in symptomatic patients with locally advanced or metastatic disease
  • Debulking large lesions is helpful when adjuvant therapy is contemplated
  • Laparoscopic resection has improved and is a more frequently considered option

Imatinib mesylate is used in GIST as follows:

  • Adjuvant therapy post complete surgical resection in patients with high-risk tumors
  • Neoadjuvant therapy with the goal of tumor shrinkage prior to surgical resection

Other tyrosine kinase inhibitors are used when imatinib is not tolerated or is not effective are as follows:

  • Sunitinib: Less specific than imatinib; approved as a second-line agent for advanced GIST
  • Sorafenib: Investigational second-generation agent
  • Dasatinib: Investigational second-generation agent
  • Nilotinib: Investigational second-generation agent

See Treatment and Medication for more detail.



Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) account for less than 1% of GI tumors, with only about 5000 new cases expected annually in the United States. GISTs rank a distant third in prevalence behind adenocarcinomas and lymphomas among the histologic types of GI tract tumors. However, GISTs are the most common mesenchymal neoplasms of the GI tract. See the image below.

Shown here is a gastric gastrointestinal stromal t Shown here is a gastric gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST). This is a gross specimen following partial gastrectomy. Note the submucosal tumor mass with the classic features of central umbilication and ulceration.

GISTs are usually found in the stomach or small intestine but can occur anywhere along the GI tract. Rarely, GISTs have extra-GI involvement. [4]

Historically, these lesions were classified as leiomyomas or leiomyosarcomas because they possessed smooth muscle features when examined under light microscopy. In the 1970s, electron microscopy found little evidence of smooth muscle origin of these tumors. In the 1980s, with the advent of immunohistochemistry, it was shown that these tumors did not have immunophenotypic features of smooth muscle cells and rather expressed antigens related to neural crest cells. Mazur and Clark in 1983, and Schaldenbrand and Appleman in 1984, were the first to describe "stromal tumors" as a separate entity.

According to the work of Kindblom and associates, reported in 1998, the actual cell of origin of GISTs is a pluripotential mesenchymal stem cell programmed to differentiate into the interstitial cell of Cajal. [5] These are GI pacemaker cells found in the muscularis propria and around the myenteric plexus and are largely responsible for initiating and coordinating GI motility. This finding led Kindblom and coworkers to suggest the term GI pacemaker cell tumors. [5]

Additional studies found that interstitial cells of Cajal express KIT and are developmentally dependent on stem cell factor, which is regulated through KIT kinase. Perhaps the most critical development that distinguished GISTs as a unique clinical entity was the discovery of c-KIT proto-oncogene mutations in these tumors in by Hirota and colleagues in 1998. [6]

Activating KIT mutations are seen in 85-95% of GISTs. About 3-5% of the remainder of KIT-negative GISTs contain PDGFR-alpha mutations. [7, 8, 9]

 The PDGFR alpha mutation seems to leave the PDGFRalpha receptor constitutively active and may represent an alternate pathway with activation of similar downstream signaling as the KIT receptor. The discovery of these receptor mutations has redefined the classification and management of the disease.

The discovery in 2000 that the tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) imatinib, initially used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia, is effective in treating metastatic GISTs revolutionized the care of patients with GISTs. [10] Imatinib has been shown to target KIT and PDGFR alpha in KIT receptor-positive GIST. [11, 12, 13, 14, 15]

This discovery has been celebrated as the example of the power of targeted, individualized therapy and has helped focus a great deal of attention on this orphan disease. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved imatinib for treatment of metastatic GIST in 2002 and for the adjuvant therapy of primary resected GIST in 2008. [4] The FDA has also approved the newer tyrosine kinase inhibitors sunitinib and regorafenib for treatment of GISTs that are unresponsive to imatinib.



GISTs are typically diagnosed as solitary lesions, although in rare cases (ie, pediatric type), multiple lesions can be found. These tumors have been reported to range in size from smaller than 1 cm to as large as 40 cm in diameter. [16] GISTs can grow intraluminally or extraluminally toward adjacent structures. When the growth pattern is extraluminal, patients can harbor the disease symptom free for an extended period and present with very large exogastric masses.

Approximately 50-70% of GISTs originate in the stomach. Of those, 15% occur in the cardia and fundus, 70% in the body, and 15% in the antrum). [17] The small intestine is the second most common location, with 20-30% of GISTs arising from the jejunoileum. Less frequent sites of occurrence include the colon and rectum (5-15%) and esophagus (< 5%). Primary pancreatic, omental, or mesenteric GISTs have been reported but are very rare. [18]

Distant metastases tend to appear late in the course of the disease in most cases. In contrast to other soft tissue tumors, the common metastatic sites of GISTs are the liver and peritoneum. Lymph node involvement is rare, occurring in only 0-8% of cases. However, in rare cases of pediatric GIST, lymph nodes are commonly involved, and distant metastasis is present at diagnosis. [19] Despite these metastases, these variant GISTs have an indolent clinical course.




Roughly 5000 new cases of GISTs are diagnosed annually in the United States. According to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database, the annual age-adjusted incidence of GISTs rose from 0.55 per 100,000 population in 2001 to 0.78/100,000 in 2011. [20]

Data on worldwide frequency are limited, but in general, GISTs constitute 1-3% of all gastric malignancies. Population-based studies from Iceland, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden report annual incidence rates ranging from 6.5 to 14.5 cases per million. [21, 22, 23, 24]


According to 2001-2011 SEER data, 5-year overall survival rates for patients with GISTs are 77% for those with localized disease at diagnosis, 64% for those with regional disease, and 41% for those with metastatic disease. [20]

Gastric GISTs carry a better prognosis than small bowel GISTs of similar size and mitotic rate. In general, gastric GISTs portend a much better prognosis than adenocarcinoma of the stomach.

Even after complete resection of primary GIST, at least 50% of patients develop recurrence or metastasis, at a median time to recurrence of 2 years. This high rate of recurrence is in the setting of an overall 5-year survival rate of 50%.

Larger GISTs are associated with complications such as GI hemorrhage, GI obstruction, and bowel perforation. Patients with advanced GISTs who are receiving tyrosine kinase inhibitor therapy may develop tumor-related intraluminal or intraperitoneal hemorrhage, rupture, fistula, or obstruction requiring emergent surgery.

Race-, Sex-, and Age-related Demographics

A review of the SEER database from 2001-2011 found that GISTs were more common in non-Hispanics than Hispanics (rate ratio [RR]=1.23) and in blacks (RR=2.07) or Asians/Pacific Islanders (RR=1.50) than in whites. GISTs were also more common in males than females (RR=1.35). The incidence of GISTs increased with age, peaking among 70-79 year olds. [20]

Older age at diagnosis, male sex, black race, and advanced stage at diagnosis were independent risk factors of worse overall survival, on multivariate analysis. Those characteristics, along with earlier year of diagnosis, were also independent risk factors of worse GIST-specific survival. [20]