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Open access

Lima Lawrence, Peng Zhang, Humberto Choi, Usman Ahmad, Valeria Arrossi, Andrei Purysko and Vinni Makin

Summary

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.

Learning points:

  • 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.

Open access

Julien Ducry, Fulgencio Gomez, John O Prior, Ariane Boubaker, Maurice Matter, Matteo Monti, Yan Pu, Nelly Pitteloud and Luc Portmann

Summary

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.

Learning points

  • 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.