Neuroendocrine neoplasms
Glucagonoma (alpha cell tumors)

Topic Completed: 22 January 2019

Minor changes: 26 October 2020

Copyright: 2002-2021,, Inc.

PubMed Search: Glucagonoma alpha cell tumor AND pancreas AND free full text[sb]

Raul S. Gonzalez, M.D.
Page views in 2020: 1,158
Page views in 2021 to date: 59
Cite this page: Gonzalez RS. Glucagonoma (alpha cell tumors). website. Accessed January 24th, 2021.
Definition / general
  • Rare, poorly characterized pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor that produces glucagon
Essential features
  • WHO recognized diagnosis
  • Produces glucagon, akin to alpha cells of the pancreas
  • Clinical glucagonoma symptoms include necrolytic migratory erythema, diabetes, weight loss and anemia
  • Necrolytic migratory erythema: skin rash of legs, perineum, groin; rash becomes blisters with central clearing, heals with hyperpigmentation but without scarring in 7 - 14 days (Am J Surg Pathol 1986;10:445)
ICD coding
  • ICD-10: D37.8 - Neoplasm of uncertain behavior of pancreas
  • Incidence rate of approximately 2.5 / 100,000,000 (Oncol Lett 2018;15:2749)
  • Mean age 54 years
  • More common in women
  • More common in tail of pancreas
Clinical features
  • Causes glucagonoma syndrome (necrolytic migratory erythema, diabetes mellitus, weight loss, anemia, angular stomatitis)
  • Necrolytic migratory erythema may become infected
  • Roughly half of cases metastasize, often to liver
  • Determined clinically, not by immunohistochemical positivity for glucagon
  • Elevated blood glucagon levels
Radiology description
  • MRI: low signal intensity on T1, slightly high signal intensity on T2
Radiology images

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Liver metastases

Case reports
Clinical images

AFIP images

Necrolytic migratory erythema

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Necrolytic migratory erythema

Gross description
  • Average gross tumor size is 5.0 cm
Microscopic (histologic) description
  • Nests of monotonous low grade neuroendocrine cells with salt and pepper nuclei and ample amphophilic cytoplasm
Microscopic (histologic) images

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H&E and immunostains

H&E and glucagon

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Liver metastasis


Positive stains (IHC and special stains)
Electron microscopy description
Differential diagnosis
Board review style question #1
    Which of the following is a potential clinical symptom of pancreatic glucagonoma?

  1. Angular stomatitis
  2. Hypochlorhydria
  3. Hypoglycemia
  4. Water diarrhea
Board review style answer #1
A. Angular stomatitis (though the most common finding is necrolytic migratory erythema). Hypochlorhydria is sometimes seen in somatostatinoma. Hypoglycemia is typical of insulinoma. Watery diarrhea is typical of VIPoma.

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Board review style question #2
    Which of the following is necessary to confirm a diagnosis of glucagonoma in a patient with a pancreatic mass?

  1. Classic radiologic findings
  2. Clinical glucagonoma-type symptoms
  3. Immunohistochemical positivity for glucagon
  4. Specific histologic findings
Board review style answer #2
B. Clinical glucagonoma-type symptoms. The diagnosis of glucagonoma is made on clinical grounds, in the setting of a pancreatic mass lesion.

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