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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.