ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism is caused by an ectopic ACTH syndrome (EAS) in 20% of cases. We report a rare cause of EAS in a 41-year-old woman, presenting with clinical features of Cushing’s syndrome which developed over several months. Biochemical tests revealed hypokalemic metabolic alkalosis and high morning cortisol and ACTH levels. Further testing, including 24-hour urine analysis, late-night saliva and low-dose dexamethasone suppression test, confirmed hypercortisolism. An MRI of the pituitary gland was normal. Inferior petrosal sinus sampling (IPSS) revealed inconsistent results, with a raised basal gradient but no rise after CRH stimulation. Additional PET-CT showed intense metabolic activity in the left nasal vault. Biopsy of this lesion revealed an unsuspected cause of Cushing’s syndrome: an olfactory neuroblastoma (ONB) with positive immunostaining for ACTH. Our patient underwent transnasal resection of the tumour mass, followed by adjuvant radiotherapy. Normalisation of cortisol and ACTH levels was seen immediately after surgery. Hydrocortisone substitution was started to prevent withdrawal symptoms. As the hypothalamic–pituitary–axis slowly recovered, daily hydrocortisone doses were tapered and stopped 4 months after surgery. Clinical Cushing’s stigmata improved gradually.
Ectopic ACTH syndrome can originate from tumours outside the thoracoabdominal region, like the sinonasal cavity.
The diagnostic accuracy of IPSS is not 100%: both false positives and false negatives may occur and might be due to a sinonasal tumour with ectopic ACTH secretion.
Olfactory neuroblastoma (syn. esthesioneuroblastoma), named because of its sensory (olfactory) and neuroectodermal origin in the upper nasal cavity, is a rare malignant neoplasm. It should not be confused with neuroblastoma, a tumour of the sympathetic nervous system typically occurring in children.
If one criticises MRI of the pituitary gland because of ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism, one should take a close look at the sinonasal field as well.
Ectopic ACTH-secreting pulmonary neuroendocrine tumors are rare and account for less than 5% of endogenous Cushing’s syndrome cases. We describe an unusual case of metastatic bronchial carcinoid tumor in a young woman presenting with unprovoked pulmonary emboli, which initially prevented the detection of the primary tumor on imaging. The source of ectopic ACTH was ultimately localized by a Gallium-DOTATATE scan, which demonstrated increased tracer uptake in a right middle lobe lung nodule and multiple liver nodules. The histological diagnosis was established based on a core biopsy of a hepatic lesion and the patient was started on a glucocorticoid receptor antagonist and a somatostatin analog. This case illustrates that hypercogulability can further aggravate the diagnostic challenges in ectopic ACTH syndrome. We discuss the literature on the current diagnosis and management strategies for ectopic ACTH syndrome.
In a young patient with concurrent hypokalemia and uncontrolled hypertension on multiple antihypertensive agents, secondary causes of hypertension should be evaluated.
Patients with Cushing’s syndrome can develop an acquired hypercoagulable state leading to spontaneous and postoperative venous thromboembolism.
Pulmonary emboli may complicate the imaging of the bronchial carcinoid tumor in ectopic ACTH syndrome.
Imaging with Gallium-68 DOTATATE PET/CT scan has the highest sensitivity and specificity in detecting ectopic ACTH-secreting tumors.
A combination of various noninvasive biochemical tests can enhance the diagnostic accuracy in differentiating Cushing’s disease from ectopic ACTH syndrome provided they have concordant results. Bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling remains the gold standard.
Severe Cushing syndrome (SCS) is considered an emergency that requires immediate treatment to lower serum cortisol levels. Fluconazole may be considered an alternative treatment in Cushing syndrome when ketoconazole is not tolerated or unavailable. We report a 39-year-old woman with a history of partial pancreaticoduodenectomy due to a periampullary neuroendocrine tumor with locoregional extension. Three years after surgery, she developed liver metastases and was started on 120 mg of lanreotide/month, despite which, liver metastases progressed in the following 6 months. The patient showed extreme fatigue, muscle weakness, delirium, moon face, hirsutism and severe proximal weakness. Laboratory tests showed anemia, hyperglycemia and severe hypokalemia. 24-h urinary free cortisol: 2152 nmol/day (reference range (RR): <276), morning serum cortisol 4883.4 nmol/L (RR: 138–690), ACTH 127.3 pmol/L (RR: 2.2–10). She was diagnosed with ectopic ACTH syndrome (EAS). On admission, she presented with acute upper gastrointestinal tract bleeding and hemodynamic instability. Intravenous fluconazole 400 mg/day was started. After 48 h, her mental state improved and morning cortisol decreased by 25%. The dose was titrated to 600 mg/day which resulted in a 55% decrease in cortisol levels in 1 week, but then had to be decreased to 400 mg/day because transaminase levels increased over 3 times the upper normal level. After 18 days of treatment, hemodynamic stability, lower cortisol levels and better overall clinical status enabled successful bilateral adrenalectomy. This case report shows that intravenous fluconazole effectively decreased cortisol levels in SCS due to EAS.
Severe Cushing syndrome can be effectively treated with fluconazole to achieve a significant improvement of hypercortisolism prior to bilateral adrenalectomy.
Intravenous fluconazole is an alternative treatment when ketoconazole is not tolerated and etomidate is not available.
Fluconazole is well tolerated with mild side effects. Hepatotoxicity is usually mild and resolves after drug discontinuation.
Ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) production leading to ectopic ACTH syndrome accounts for a small proportion of all Cushing’s syndrome (CS) cases. Thymic neuroendocrine tumors are rare neoplasms that may secrete ACTH leading to rapid development of hypercortisolism causing electrolyte and metabolic abnormalities, uncontrolled hypertension and an increased risk for opportunistic infections. We present a unique case of a patient who presented with a mediastinal mass, revealed to be an ACTH-secreting thymic neuroendocrine tumor (NET) causing ectopic CS. As the diagnosis of CS from ectopic ACTH syndrome (EAS) remains challenging, we emphasize the necessity for high clinical suspicion in the appropriate setting, concordance between biochemical, imaging and pathology findings, along with continued vigilant monitoring for recurrence after definitive treatment.
Functional thymic neuroendocrine tumors are exceedingly rare.
Ectopic Cushing’s syndrome secondary to thymic neuroendocrine tumors secreting ACTH present with features of hypercortisolism including electrolyte and metabolic abnormalities, uncontrolled hypertension and hyperglycemia, and opportunistic infections.
The ability to undergo surgery and completeness of resection are the strongest prognostic factors for improved overall survival; however, the recurrence rate remains high.
A high degree of initial clinical suspicion followed by vigilant monitoring is required for patients with this challenging disease.
The objective of this study is to report three cases of paraneoplastic or ectopic Cushing syndrome, which is a rare phenomenon of the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-dependent Cushing syndrome. Three cases are reported in respect of clinical presentation, diagnosis and treatment in addition to relevant literature review. The results showed that ectopic ACTH secretion can be associated with different types of neoplasm most common of which are bronchial carcinoid tumors, which are slow-growing, well-differentiated neoplasms with a favorable prognosis and small-cell lung cancer, which are poorly differentiated tumors with a poor outcome. The latter is present in two out of three cases and in the remaining one, primary tumor could not be localized, representing a small fraction of patients with paraneoplastic Cushing. Diagnosis is established in the setting of high clinical suspicion by documenting an elevated cortisol level, ACTH and doing dexamethasone suppression test. Treatment options include management of the primary tumor by surgery and chemotherapy and treating Cushing syndrome. Prognosis is poor in SCLC. We concluded that in front of a high clinical suspicion, ectopic Cushing syndrome diagnosis should be considered, and identification of the primary tumor is essential.
Learning how to suspect ectopic Cushing syndrome and confirm it among all the causes of excess cortisol.
Distinguish between occult and severe ectopic Cushing syndrome and etiology.
Providing the adequate treatment of the primary tumor as well as for the cortisol excess.
Prognosis depends on the differentiation and type of the primary malignancy.
Ectopic ACTH/CRH co-secreting tumors are a very rare cause of Cushing’s syndrome and only a few cases have been reported in the literature. Differentiating between Cushing’s disease and ectopic Cushing’s syndrome may be particularly difficult if predominant ectopic CRH secretion leads to pituitary corticotroph hyperplasia that may mimic Cushing’s disease during dynamic testing with both dexamethasone and CRH as well as bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling (BIPSS). We present the case of a 24-year-old man diagnosed with ACTH-dependent Cushing’s syndrome caused by an ACTH/CRH co-secreting midgut NET. Both high-dose dexamethasone testing and BIPSS suggested Cushing’s disease. However, the clinical presentation with a rather rapid onset of cushingoid features, hyperpigmentation and hypokalemia led to the consideration of ectopic ACTH/CRH-secretion and prompted a further workup. Computed tomography (CT) of the abdomen revealed a cecal mass which was identified as a predominantly CRH-secreting neuroendocrine tumor. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first reported case of an ACTH/CRH co-secreting tumor of the cecum presenting with biochemical features suggestive of Cushing’s disease.
The discrimination between a Cushing’s disease and ectopic Cushing’s syndrome is challenging and has many caveats.
Ectopic ACTH/CRH co-secreting tumors are very rare.
Dynamic tests as well as BIPSS may be compatible with Cushing’s disease in ectopic CRH-secretion.
High levels of CRH may induce hyperplasia of the corticotroph cells in the pituitary. This could be the cause of a preserved pituitary response to dexamethasone and CRH.
Clinical features of ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism with rapid development of Cushing’s syndrome, hyperpigmentation, high circulating levels of cortisol with associated hypokalemia, peripheral edema and proximal myopathy should be a warning flag of ectopic Cushing’s syndrome and lead to further investigations.
Ectopic ACTH Cushing's syndrome (EAS) is often caused by neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) of lungs, pancreas, thymus, and other less frequent locations. Localizing the source of ACTH can be challenging. A 64-year-old man presented with rapidly progressing fatigue, muscular weakness, and dyspnea. He was in poor condition and showed facial redness, proximal amyotrophy, and bruises. Laboratory disclosed hypokalemia, metabolic alkalosis, and markedly elevated ACTH and cortisol levels. Pituitary was normal on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and bilateral inferior petrosal sinus blood sampling with corticotropin-releasing hormone stimulation showed no significant central-to-periphery gradient of ACTH. Head and neck, thoracic and abdominal computerized tomography (CT), MRI, somatostatin receptor scintigraphy (SSRS), and 18F-deoxyglucose-positron emission tomography (FDG-PET) failed to identify the primary tumor. 18F-dihydroxyphenylalanine (F-DOPA)-PET/CT unveiled a 20-mm nodule in the jejunum and a metastatic lymph node. Segmental jejunum resection showed two adjacent NETs, measuring 2.0 and 0.5 cm with a peritoneal metastasis. The largest tumor expressed ACTH in 30% of cells. Following surgery, after a transient adrenal insufficiency, ACTH and cortisol levels returned to normal values and remain normal over a follow-up of 26 months. Small mid-gut NETs are difficult to localize on CT or MRI, and require metabolic imaging. Owing to low mitotic activity, NETs are generally poor candidates for FDG-PET, whereas SSRS shows poor sensitivity in EAS due to intrinsically low tumor concentration of type-2 somatostatin receptors (SST2) or to receptor down regulation by excess cortisol. However, F-DOPA-PET, which is related to amine precursor uptake by NETs, has been reported to have high positive predictive value for occult EAS despite low sensitivity, and constitutes a useful alternative to more conventional methods of tumor localization.
Uncontrolled high cortisol levels in EAS can be lethal if untreated.
Surgical excision is the keystone of NETs treatment, thus tumor localization is crucial.
Most cases of EAS are caused by NETs, which are located mainly in the lungs. However, small gut NETs are elusive to conventional imaging and require metabolic imaging for detection.
FDG-PET, based on tumor high metabolic rate, may not detect NETs that have low mitotic activity. SSRS may also fail, due to absent or low concentration of SST2, which may be down regulated by excess cortisol.
F-DOPA-PET, based on amine-precursor uptake, can be a useful method to localize the occult source of ACTH in EAS when other methods have failed.
ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome includes Cushing's disease and ectopic ACTH syndrome (EAS). The differential diagnosis of Cushing's disease from EAS in cases of ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome is a challenging problem. We report here a case of EAS with an unknown source of ACTH secretion. Extensive imaging procedures, involving computed tomography (neck to pelvis), pituitary magnetic resonance imaging, and whole-body 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose-positron emission tomography, failed to reveal the source of ACTH secretion. Intermittent administration of bromocriptine, a short-acting and nonselective dopamine agonist, has afforded adequate suppression of plasma ACTH and cortisol levels over the long term.
Tumor excision is the primary treatment for EAS. However, when surgery is impossible, medical therapy is needed to treat hypercortisolism.
In cases where the source of ACTH secretion is unknown, inhibitors of steroidogenesis, such as metyrapone, mitotane, ketoconazole, and etomidate, are mostly used to suppress cortisol secretion.
Medications that suppress ACTH secretion are less effective, therefore less popular, as standard treatments.
In the present case, short-term treatment with dopamine agonists was effective for the long-term suppression of both ACTH and cortisol levels.