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Case Letter
87 (
); 71-75

A case of micro-melanoma and its dermoscopic features

Department of Dermatology, The Fourth People’s Hospital of Zhenjiang, Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, China
Department of Dermatology and Venereology, Nanjing Medical University Affiliated Wuxi People’s Hospital, Wuxi, Jiangsu, China
Corresponding author: Dr. Zizhong Liu, Department of Dermatology, The Fourth People’s Hospital of Zhenjiang, 20 Zhengdong Road, Zhenjiang, 212001, Jiangsu, China.

*These authors contributed equally to this manuscript

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 4.0 License, which allows others to remix, tweak, and build upon the work non-commercially, as long as the author is credited and the new creations are licensed under the identical terms.

How to cite this article: Huang Y, Yang J, Bi M, Liu Z. A case of micro-melanoma and its dermoscopic features. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 2021;87:71-5.


A 45-year-old woman incidentally observed an asymptomatic small black papule on her left calf. She had no past history of melanoma. Physical examination revealed a small, round, black papule on her left calf, which was approximately 2.3 mm in diameter and symmetrical in shape [Figure 1a]. Also, several small brown naevi were seen scattered on the skin, with no obvious abnormality in shape or colour. There was no peripheral lymphadenopathy. Chest radiography and doppler sonography of the liver, bile ducts, pancreas and spleen revealed no anomalies. Dermoscopy (Heine Delta 20, Germany, non-polarized, ×20) of the papule on the calf revealed dark brown homogeneous pigmentation with pseudopods and abruptness of pigment patterns at the periphery, with structure asymmetry in one axis [Figure 1b]. This pigmentation had a starburst-like pattern. Histopathology revealed atypical melanocytes in the epidermis and hair root sheath [Figure 2a]. These melanocytes contained macronuclei and were hyperchromatic and heteromorphic in nature [Figure 2b]. Immunohistochemical staining revealed that neoplastic cells were positive for Melan A, S100 and HMB 45 [Figure 2c-e]. Based on these findings, a diagnosis of melanoma in situ was made.

Figure 1a:: Black papule on the left calf of maximum diameter 2.3mm
Figure 1b:: Dermoscopy (Heine delta 20, nonpolarized, ×20) showing dark brown homogeneous pigmentation with pseudopods (yellow arrow) and abruptness of pigment patterns (red arrow), with structure asymmetry in one axis
Figure 2a:: Histopathology showing atypical melanocytes located in the epidermis and hair root sheath (H and E, ×100)
Figure 2b:: Hyperchromatic and heteromorphic cells with a macronucleus in the epidermis (H and E, ×400)
Figure 2c:: Immunohistochemical staining with Melan A (×100)
Figure 2d:: Immunohistochemical staining with S100 (×100)
Figure 2e:: Immunohistochemical staining with HMB45 (×100)

Pigmented lesions are very common and mainly include melanocyte naevus, blue naevus, Spitz naevus, Reed naevus, pigmented basal cell carcinoma, seborrheic keratosis and melanoma. However, pigmented lesions are sometimes difficult to identify with the unaided eye, particularly when they are small. The acronyms ‘ABCD’ (asymmetry, border, colour, diameter) and ‘ABCDE’ (include ‘evolving’) were developed for melanoma screening. However, these criteria are not found suitable for pigmented lesions that are smaller than 5 mm in diameter. Some researchers have even suggested that pigmented lesions smaller than 5 mm cannot be considered as melanoma.1 Thus these small pigmented lesions are easily misdiagnosed in clinical practice.

Public awareness of melanoma has increased in recent decades, and patients often seek medical advice when they notice a new pigmented lesion. Therefore, more number of small melanomas have been diagnosed. In 2004, Bono et al. termed cutaneous melanomas with a maximum diameter of 3 mm as micro-melanomas.2 The main subtypes of micro-melanomas are in situ (about one-third) and Clark level II. The average age of patients with micro-melanoma is nearly a decade younger than that of those with early melanoma, implying that micro-melanoma lesions are identified several years before melanomas are usually detected.2 Early identification of micro-melanoma may greatly reduce patient mortality rate.

The typical lesion of micro-melanoma is a black macule with well-defined borders which may be symmetric or asymmetric.2 Micro-melanoma often presents as an important diagnostic challenge to the dermatologist. Dermoscopy appears to be an important aid to the diagnosis of micro-melanoma. Meta-analyses revealed that dermoscopy increases the diagnostic sensitivity of melanoma up to 25%, in comparison with the unaided eye.3 The dermoscopic features of nodular pigmented melanoma are typified by structureless blue pigmentation, predominant peripheral vessels and areas of pink and black colour. 4 Chaos (i.e., asymmetry of structure or colour) can be found in almost all algorithms, comprising asymmetry, irregular blotch, bizarre pattern or an atypical network.5 However, chaos is not 100% specific or sensitive for melanoma. A small portion of nodular melanomas (5.8%) are not chaotic in either structure or colour. With the wide use of dermoscopy, an increasing number of patients with micro-melanoma have been identified. To the best of our knowledge, a total of 23 cases of micro-melanoma identified via dermoscopy imaging have been reported to date [Table 1], and the smallest melanoma identified with dermoscopic images was 1.5 mm in diameter.6 Pseudopods, radial streaming and irregular network were the mainly observed dermoscopic features (in more than a quarter of patients). The frequency of pseudopods (11/24), radial streaming (7/24), and irregular network (6/24) in micro-melanoma had no significant statistical differences (χ2 = 1.27, P = 0.53). In addition, no significant difference was observed in these dermoscopic features between micro-melanomas in situ and invasive melanomas.

Table 1:: Dermoscopic features of the micro-melanomas reported in the literature
Number Diameter (mm) Color Type Clark level Blue-grey veil Pseudopods Radial streaming Irregular blasck dots Red dots Irregular network Other Chaos References
1 3 Black In situ I Not mentioned Bono A, et al. Micro-melanoma detection. A clinical study on 22 cases of melanoma with a diameter equal to or less than 3 mm. Tumori 2004;90:128-31.
2 3 Black In situ I Not mentioned
3 3 Black In situ I Not mentioned
4 3 Black-tan In situ I Not mentioned
5 3 Tan-whitish In situ I Not mentioned
6 2 Black Invasive II Not mentioned
7 3 Black-grey Invasive II Not mentioned
8 3 Black Invasive II Not mentioned
9 3 Black Invasive II Not mentioned
10 3 Black Invasive II Not mentioned
11 3 Black-brown Invasive II Not mentioned
12 3 Black Invasive II Not mentioned
13 3 Brown Invasive II Not mentioned
14 3 Brown-pink Invasive II Not mentioned
15 3 Black-brown Invasive II Not mentioned
16 3 Brown Invasive II Not mentioned
17 3 Not mentioned In situ I Not mentioned Bono A, et al. Micro-melanoma detection: a clinical study on 206 consecutive cases of pigmented skin lesions with a diameter 3 mm. Br J Dermatol 2006;155:570-3.
18 1.6 Pigmented macule In situ I Rosendahl, et al. Dermatoscopy of a minute melanoma. Australas J Dermatol 2011;52:76-8.
19 1.6 Pigmented macule In situ I equivocal asymmetry Pellizzari et al. A tiny invasive melanoma: a case report with dermatoscopy and dermatopathology.Dermatol Pract Concept 2013;3:49-51.
20 2 Pigmented macule In situ I Blueness Paul SP. Micromelanomas: A review of melanomas ≤2 mm and a case report. Case Rep Oncol Med 2014;2014:206260.
21 1.5 Darkly pigmented In situ I Brown pigmented, structureless Rosendahl, et al. Diagnosis of a minute melanoma assisted by automated multi-camera-array total body photography. Australas J Dermatol 2016;57:242-3.
22 1.7 Pigmented lesion In situ I Grey structures Fomiatti, et al. Dermatoscopic chaos of border-abruptness led to diagnosis of a minute melanoma. Australas J Dermatol 2019;60:e62-4.
23 2 Brown In situ I Hyperpigmented areas Lallas, et al. A tiny melanoma: The beginning of a life. Dermatol Pract Concept 2019;9:207-8.
24 2.3 Black In situ I Starburst pattern

√: positive for this feature

The presence of chaos had a higher sensitivity for the detection of melanoma, as observed in six of the seven described patients.The lesion in the present case was small and symmetrical when visualised with the unaided eye, but the time of onset and the nature of evolution were unknown. The patient also had no personal or family history of melanoma. Dermoscopy revealed that the lesion had a typical starburst pattern, dark brown homogeneous pigmentation with pseudopods and abruptness of pigment patterns at the periphery which was monochromatic and asymmetrical in one axis. The starburst pattern is mainly observed in benign diseases such as blue naevus, Spitz naevus and Reed naevus, but rare in melanoma. Considering the dark colour and incomplete symmetry of the lesion under dermoscopy, melanoma was suspected. A biopsy was performed, which confirmed the diagnosis of melanoma. The patient underwent complete surgical resection, with no recurrence over the 1-year follow-up period.

This finding emphasises that there need not be an association between the size of the pigmented lesions and the diagnosis of melanoma. Presence of asymmetry or the criteria like ABCD or ABCDE and a variety of dermoscopic algorithms can be used for melanoma screening, but they may not be suitable for all patients. Hence clinicians should be vigilant when encountering such small pigmented lesions, particularly new onset black lesions. So it is important that such suspicious lesions must be biopsied and subjected to histopathological examination.

Declaration of patient consent

The authors certify that they have obtained all appropriate patient consent forms. In the form, the patient has given her consent for her images and other clinical information to be reported in the journal. The patient understand that name and initials will not be published and due efforts will be made to conceal identity, but anonymity cannot be guaranteed.

Financial support and sponsorship

This work was supported by the Social Development Project of Zhenjiang (SH2018074).

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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