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Open access

Vasileios Chortis, Christine J H May, Kassiani Skordilis, John Ayuk, Wiebke Arlt and Rachel K Crowley

Summary

Context

Adrenal incidentalomas (AI) represent an increasingly common problem in modern endocrine practice. The diagnostic approach to AIs can be challenging and occasionally reveals surprising features. Here we describe two rare cases of complex adrenal lesions consisting of phaeochromocytomas with synchronous metastases from extra-adrenal primaries.

Case descriptions

Patient 1 – a 65-year-old gentleman with a newly diagnosed malignant melanoma was found to harbour an adrenal lesion with suspicious radiographic characteristics. Percutaneous adrenal biopsy was consistent with adrenocortical adenoma. After excision of the skin melanoma and regional lymphatic metastases, he was followed up without imaging. Three years later, he presented with abdominal discomfort and enlargement of his adrenal lesion, associated with high plasma metanephrines. Adrenalectomy revealed a mixed tumour consisting of a large phaeochromocytoma with an embedded melanoma metastasis in its core. Patient 2 – a 63-year-old lady with a history of NF-1-related phaeochromocytoma 20 years ago and previous breast cancer presented with a new adrenal lesion on the contralateral side. Plasma normetanephrine was markedly elevated. Elective adrenalectomy revealed an adrenal tumour consisting of chromaffin cells intermixed with breast carcinoma cells.

Conclusions

Adrenal incidentalomas require careful evaluation to exclude metastatic disease, especially in the context of a history of previous malignancy. Adrenal biopsy provides limited and potentially misleading information. Phaeochromocytomas are highly vascularised tumours that may function as a sieve, extracting and retaining irregularly shaped cancer cells, thereby yielding adrenal masses with intriguing dual pathology.

Learning points:

  • Adrenal incidentalomas require careful evaluation focused on exclusion of underlying hormone excess and malignant pathology.

  • Adrenal biopsy can be misleading and should only be considered in select cases.

  • Phaeochromocytomas harbouring intratumoural metastases from other, extra-adrenal primary malignancies represent rare pathological entities that highlight the complexities that can be presented by adrenal tumours.

Open access

C Mumby, J R E Davis, J Trouillas and C E Higham

Summary

A 52-year-old lady was referred after a 5 cm left adrenal mass was detected on computed tomography (CT) scanning. She was asymptomatic although was noted to have acromegalic facies. Blood pressure (BP) was normal but plasma normetanephrines were raised to 2.81 mmol/l (<1.09) and urinary normetadrenaline excretion 5.3 μmol/24 h (0–4.3). Adrenal biochemistry screen was otherwise normal. Metaiodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) scan demonstrated uptake in the adrenal lesion. Growth hormone (GH) nadir on oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) was 2.2 ng/ml with an elevated IGF1 level of 435 ng/ml (72–215), confirming acromegaly biochemically. The remainder of the pituitary screen was normal. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of the pituitary revealed an enlarged pituitary gland with a microadenoma/cyst of 2–3 mm in diameter. Alpha blockade was achieved with a titrated dose of phenoxybenzamine before a successful laparoscopic hand-assisted left adrenalectomy. Postoperative biochemical testing revealed a normal plasma normetanephrine level of 0.6 nmol/l (<1.09) and a metanephrine level of 0.35 nmol/l (<0.46 nmol/l). Nadir on OGTT was normal at 0.07 ng/ml with an IGF1 level within the reference range at 111 ng/ml (75–215). Histology demonstrated a well-circumscribed and encapsulated oval mass with microscopic features typical for a phaeochromocytoma. The sections stained strongly positive for GHRH in 20% of cells on immunocytochemistry. Genetic analysis showed no pathogenic mutation. This is a report of the rare condition of a phaeochromocytoma co-secreting GHRH resulting in clinical and biochemical acromegaly. Neuroendocrine tumours can stain positive for GHRH without coexisting acromegaly, but the resolution of patient symptoms and normalisation of serum GH and IGF1 levels following surgery imply that this was functional secretion. Pituitary surgery should be avoided in such cases.

Learning points

  • Incidental findings on imaging require thorough investigation to determine the presence of serious pathology.

  • Acromegaly and phaeochromocytoma are rarely coincident in the same patient. If this occurs, co-secretion of GHRH from the phaeochromocytoma or the presence of underlying genetic abnormalities must be considered.

  • Acromegaly is due to ectopic GHRH-secreting neuroendocrine tumours in <1% of cases, most commonly pancreatic or bronchial lesions.

  • Co-secretion of GHRH from a phaeochromocytoma is extremely rare.

  • In such cases, the pituitary gland may appear enlarged but pituitary surgery should be avoided and surgical treatment of the neuroendocrine tumour attempted.