What Is Gestational Trophoblastic Disease?
Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer, and can spread to other areas of the body. To learn more about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?
Gestational trophoblastic (jeh-STAY-shuh-nul troh-fuh-BLAS-tik) disease (GTD) is a group of rare tumors that involve abnormal growth of cells inside a woman's uterus. GTD does not develop from cells of the uterus like cervical cancer or endometrial (uterine lining) cancer do. Instead, these tumors start in the cells that would normally develop into the placenta during pregnancy. (The term gestational refers to pregnancy.)
GTD begins in the layer of cells called the trophoblast (troh-fuh-BLAST) that normally surrounds an embryo. (Tropho- means nutrition, and -blast means bud or early developmental cell.) Early in normal development, the cells of the trophoblast form tiny, finger-like projections known as villi. The villi grow into the lining of the uterus. In time, the trophoblast layer develops into the placenta, the organ that protects and nourishes the growing fetus.
Most GTDs are benign (not cancer) and they don't invade deeply into body tissues or spread to other parts of the body. But some are malignant (cancerous). Because not all of these tumors are cancerous, this group of tumors may be referred to as gestational trophoblastic disease, gestational trophoblastic tumors, or gestational trophoblastic neoplasia. (The word neoplasia simply means new growth.)
All forms of GTD can be treated. And in most cases the treatment produces a complete cure.
Types of gestational trophoblastic disease
The main types of gestational trophoblastic diseases are:
- Hydatidiform (HY-duh-TIH-dih-form) mole (complete or partial)
- Invasive mole
- Choriocarcinoma (KOR-ee-oh-KAR-sih-NOH-muh)
- Placental-site trophoblastic tumor
- Epithelioid (ep-ih-THEE-lee-oyd) trophoblastic tumor
The most common form of gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD) is called a hydatidiform mole, also known as a molar pregnancy. It is made up of villi that have become swollen with fluid. The swollen villi grow in clusters that look like bunches of grapes. This is called a molar pregnancy, but it is not possible for a normal baby to form. Still in rare cases (less than 1 in 100), a normal fetus can develop alongside the molar pregnancy. Hydatidiform moles are not cancerous, but they can develop into cancerous GTDs.
There are 2 types of hydatidiform moles: complete and partial.
A complete hydatidiform mole most often develops when either 1 or 2 sperm cells fertilize an egg cell that contains no nucleus or DNA (an “empty” egg cell). All the genetic material comes from the father's sperm cell. Therefore, there is no fetal tissue.
Surgery can totally remove most complete moles, but as many as 1 in 5 women will have some persistent molar tissue (see below). Most often this is an invasive mole, but in rare cases it is a choriocarcinoma, a malignant (cancerous) form of GTD. In either case it will require further treatment.
A partial hydatidiform mole develops when 2 sperm fertilize a normal egg. These tumors contain some fetal tissue, but this is often mixed in with the trophoblastic tissue. It is important to know that a viable (able to live) fetus is not being formed.
Partial moles are usually completely removed by surgery. Only a small number of women with partial moles need further treatment after initial surgery. Partial moles rarely develop into malignant GTD.
Persistent gestational trophoblastic disease is GTD that is not cured by initial surgery. Persistent GTD occurs when the hydatidiform mole has grown from the surface layer of the uterus into the muscle layer below (called the myometrium [my-oh-MEE-tree-um]). The surgery used to treat a hydatidiform mole (called suction dilation and curettage, or D&C) scrapes the inside of the uterus. This removes only the inner layer of the uterus (the endometrium [en-doh-MEE-tree-um]) and cannot remove tumor that has grown into the muscular layer.
Most cases of persistent GTD are invasive moles, but in rare cases they are choriocarcinomas or placental site trophoblastic tumors (see below).
An invasive mole (formerly known as chorioadenoma destruens) is a hydatidiform mole that has grown into the muscle layer of the uterus. Invasive moles can develop from either complete or partial moles, but complete moles become invasive much more often than do partial moles. Invasive moles develop in a little less than 1 out of 5 women who have had a complete mole removed. The risk of developing an invasive mole in these women increases if:
- There is a long time (more than 4 months) between the last menstrual period and treatment.
- The uterus has become very large.
- The woman is older than 40 years.
- The woman has had gestational trophoblastic disease in the past.
Because these moles have grown into the uterine muscle layer, they aren't completely removed during a D&C. Invasive moles can sometimes go away on their own, but most often more treatment is needed.
A tumor or mole that grows completely through the wall of the uterus may result in bleeding into the abdominal or pelvic cavity. This bleeding can be life threatening.
Sometimes after removing a complete hydatidiform mole, the tumor spreads (metastasizes) to other parts of the body, most often the lungs. This occurs about 4% of the time (or 1 in 25 cases).
Choriocarcinoma is a malignant form of gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD). It is much more likely than other types of GTD to grow quickly and spread to organs away from the uterus.
Half of all gestational choriocarcinomas start off as molar pregnancies. About one-quarter develop in women who have a miscarriage (spontaneous abortion), intentional abortion, or tubal pregnancy (the fetus develops in the fallopian tube, rather than in the uterus). Another quarter (25%) develop after normal pregnancy and delivery.
Rarely, choriocarcinomas that are not related to pregnancy can develop. These can be found in areas other than the uterus, and can occur in both men and women. They may develop in the ovaries, testicles, chest, or abdomen. In these cases, choriocarcinoma is usually mixed with other types of cancer, forming a type of cancer called a mixed germ cell tumor.
These tumors are not considered to be gestational (related to pregnancy) and are not discussed in this document. Non-gestational choriocarcinoma can be less responsive to chemotherapy and may have a less favorable prognosis (outlook) than gestational choriocarcinoma. For more information about these tumors, see Ovarian Cancer and Testicular Cancer.
Placental-site trophoblastic tumor
Placental-site trophoblastic tumor (PSTT) is a very rare form of gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD) that develops where the placenta attaches to the lining of the uterus. This tumor most often develops after a normal pregnancy or abortion, but it may also develop after a complete or partial mole is removed.
Most PSTTs do not spread to other sites in the body. But these tumors have a tendency to grow into (invade) the muscle layer of the uterus.
Most forms of GTD are very sensitive to chemotherapy drugs, but PSTTs are not. Instead, they are treated with surgery, aimed at completely removing disease.
Epithelioid trophoblastic tumor
Epithelioid trophoblastic tumor (ETT) is an extremely rare type of gestational trophoblastic disease that can be hard to diagnose. ETT used to be called atypical choriocarcinoma because the cells look like choriocarcinoma cells under the microscope, but it is now thought to be a separate disease. Because it can be found growing in the cervix, it can also sometimes be confused with cervical cancer. Like placental-site trophoblastic tumors, ETT most often occurs after a full-term pregnancy, but it can take several years after the pregnancy for the ETT to occur. Also, like placental-site trophoblastic tumors, ETT does not respond very well to chemotherapy drugs, so the main treatment is surgery. It might have already metastasized when it is diagnosed which carries a poorer prognosis (outlook).
Last Medical Review: February 6, 2014 Last Revised: February 9, 2016