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Open access

Seong Keat Cheah, David Halsall, Peter Barker, John Grant, Abraham Mathews, Shyam Seshadri and Singhan Krishnan

Summary

A frail 79-year-old lady with dementia presented with a 2-year history of frequent falls. Recurrent hypoglycaemic episodes were diagnosed and treated with continuous glucose infusion in multiple hospital admissions. Hypoadrenalism and hypothyroidism were ruled out. Whilst hypoglycaemic (blood glucose 1.6 mmol/L), both plasma C-peptide and proinsulin concentrations, were inappropriately elevated at 4210 pmol/L (174–960) and >200 pmol/L (0–7) respectively with plasma insulin suppressed at 12 pmol/L (0–180). Whilst reported cases of proinsulinoma are typically pancreatic in origin, radiological investigations of the pancreas in this patient did not identify abnormalities. Unexpectedly contrast CT identified a heterogeneously enhancing mass (6.6 cm) at the lower pole of the left kidney consistent with renal cell carcinoma. Non-islet cell tumour-induced hypoglycaemia has been associated with renal malignancy; however, a serum IGF2:IGF1 ratio measured at <10 effectively excludes this diagnosis. Concomitantly on the CT, extensive peripherally enhancing heterogeneous mass lesions in the liver were identified, the largest measuring 12 cm. A palliative approach was taken due to multiple comorbidities. On post-mortem, the kidney lesion was confirmed as clear cell renal carcinoma, whilst the liver lesions were identified as proinsulin-secreting neuroendocrine tumours. In conclusion, the diagnosis of proinsulinoma can be missed if plasma proinsulin concentration is not measured at the time of hypoglycaemia. In this case, the plasma insulin:C-peptide ratio was too high to be accounted for by the faster relative clearance of insulin and was due to proinsulin cross-reactivity in the C-peptide assay. In addition, the concomitant malignancy proved to be a challenging red herring.

Learning points:

  • Even in non-diabetics, hypoglycaemia needs to be excluded in a setting of frequent falls. Insulin- or proinsulin-secreting tumours are potentially curable causes.

  • Whilst investigating spontaneous hypoglycaemia, if plasma insulin concentration is appropriate for the hypoglycaemia, it is prudent to check proinsulin concentrations during the hypoglycaemic episode.

  • Proinsulin cross-reacts variably with C-peptide and insulin assays; the effect is method dependent. In this case, the discrepancy between the insulin and C-peptide concentrations was too great to be accounted for by the faster relative clearance of insulin, raising the suspicion of assay interference. The C-peptide assay in question (Diasorin liaison) has been shown to be 100% cross reactive with proinsulin based on spiking studies with a proinsulin reference preparation.

  • Whilst reported cases of proinsulinoma and 99% of insulinomas are of pancreatic origin, conventional imaging studies (CT, MRI or ultrasound) fail to detect neuroendocrine tumours <1 cm in 50% of cases.

  • The concomitant renal mass identified radiologically proved to be a red herring.

  • In view of the rarity of proinsulinoma, no conclusive association with renal cell carcinoma can be established.

Open access

Chun-Han Lo and Ding-Ping Sun

Summary

Insulinomas are the most common cause of hypoglycemia resulting from endogenous hyperinsulinism. Traditionally, inappropriately elevated levels of insulin in the face of hypoglycemia are the key to diagnosis. However, contradictory levels of insulin and C-peptide do not necessarily exclude the diagnosis. A 50-year-old female was brought to our emergency department because of conscious disturbance on the previous night. She had no history of diabetes mellitus, and was not using any medications or alcohol. Laboratory data showed low sugar, a significantly low insulin level, and elevated C-peptide. After admission, she had multiple episodes of spontaneous hypoglycemia after overnight fasts without discomfort. It was considered that a neuroendocrine tumor was the source of her hypoglycemia. CT scan of the abdomen revealed a 1.1cm hypervascular nodule in the pancreatic tail. Elective laparoscopic distal pancreatectomy was incorporated into her treatment course. A 1.2×1.0cm homogenous well-encapsulated tumor was resected. We monitored her glucose levels in the outpatient clinic every month for a period of six months. She did not have another episode of spontaneous hypoglycemia.

Learning points

  • Insulinoma causes endogenous hypoglycemia – it cannot be ruled out in patients presenting with hypoglycemia and low insulin levels; history and imaging studies should be done for further assessment

  • A 24-h fast test has the same clinical significance as that of 72-h fast test

  • C-peptide is a useful biochemical marker in addition to serum insulin, which can be used to diagnose insulinomas

  • CT scan is used to measure the tumor size and localize the tumor. However, definitive diagnosis is only achieved through histopathologic evaluation of diseased tissue