Cushing’s Syndrome Eludes Treatment Paradigm or Standard Approach to Care

Results of two systematic reviews indicate that while surgery is the preferred treatment, many patients present with contraindications without an accepted management paradigm leaving clinicians to follow a patient-centric approach to care.

With commentary by Eliza B. Geer, MD

Cushing’s syndrome may arise from an endogenous glucocorticoid excess is either adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-dependent or ACTH-independent; each variation has numerous underlying causes, including pituitary tumor, adrenal tumor, or other unknown causes.

Although rare, ectopic Cushing’s syndrome results from a non-pituitary ACTH-producing source. Cushing’s disease, a type of Cushing’s syndrome, affects an estimated 1.2 to 2.4 million people each year, and is caused by an ACTH-secreting pituitary adenoma.1

While surgery is preferred for treatment of Cushing's syndrome many patients need a medical approach instead.

Gaining insights into treatment preferences and efficacy for Cushing’s syndrome were the focus of two separate systematic reviews and meta-analyses, both published in the journal, Pituitary: one regarding medical treatments for Cushing’s syndrome,2 and the other comparing endoscopic versus microscopic transsphenoidal surgery for Cushing’s disease.3

Assessing Medical Management of Cushing’s Syndrome

The meta-analysis examining medical care of individuals with Cushing’s syndrome encompassed 1520 total patients across 35 studies, most of whom had Cushing’s disease.2 However, only 2 of the 35 studies were randomized trials, highlighting the lack of and clear need for controlled clinical trials on medical therapies for Cushing’s syndrome.

Surgery is typically first-line treatment—whether transsphenoidal pituitary adenomectomy for Cushing’s disease,4 removal of the ACTH-producing tumor in ectopic Cushing’s syndrome or adrenalectomy in ACTH-independent Cushing’s syndrome.5

However, many patients require medical therapy owing to contraindications for surgery, for recurrent disease, or to control cortisol secretion prior to surgery or radiotherapy. Results of the meta-analysis reflected wide-ranging normalization of cortisol levels depending upon the agent used– from 35.7% for cabergoline to nearly 82% for mitotane in Cushing’s disease.2 Combination therapy (medications used either together or sequentially) was shown to increase effectiveness in normalizing cortisol levels.2

In an interview with EndocrineWeb, Eliza B. Geer, MD, medical director of the Multidisciplinary Pituitary and Skull Base Tumor Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, noted that most medical therapies for Cushing’s syndrome are used off-label (in the US), and thus may lack clinical trial efficacy and safety data; consequently, this review provides useful information for treatment selection. However, Dr. Geer said there was substantial diversity of treatments reviewed in this paper – including tumor-directed therapies, cortisol synthesis inhibitors, an adrenolytic therapy, and a receptor blocker, used alone or in combination.

Further, treatments used in the studies addressed a range of Cushing’s etiologies and reflected heterogeneous study designs (for example follow-up ranged from 2 weeks to 11.5 years).2  As such, she said, “findings provided by this review should be viewed in the context of a broader clinical understanding of Cushing’s treatment.”

Specifically, Dr. Geer said, “Dr. Broersen’s analysis found that efficacy of medical therapy was improved by prior radiotherapy. But we know that radiotherapy is recommended on an individualized basis in only a fraction of Cushing’s patients, depending on tumor behavior and treatment history. Also, the fact that mitotane was shown here to have the highest efficacy of all therapies does not make this the appropriate treatment for all, or even most, Cushing’s patients; mitotane is adrenolytic and has a high rate of significant adverse effects.”

Too Many Questions Persist, Necessitating Focus on Attaining Management Paradigm

Dr. Geer also highlighted the need for answers to basic questions when investigating Cushing’s treatments: How do we define ‘successful’ treatment? What goals of care can patients expect? Which cortisol measurements and cut-offs can be used? How do we define clinical remission—resolution of which symptoms and comorbidities? She said Cushing’s syndrome is one of the most challenging endocrine diseases to treat because of the lack of an accepted, universal treatment or management paradigm.

Treatment is often multimodal and always multidisciplinary, with patient-specific decision trees that must consider many factors, including goals of care, treatment history, disease etiology and severity, tumor behavior, and individual responses to medical therapies, she told EndocrineWeb.

She concluded, “While Broersen et al’s study provides a useful review of available medical therapies, it reinforces something we already know about the treatment of Cushing’s: Expertise is required.”

Pituitary surgery is first-line treatment for Cushing’s disease. Currently, there are two main techniques for transsphenoidal pituitary surgery: microscopic and endoscopic. The operating microscope provides three-dimensional vision and may be advantageous in identifying small tumors; the broader field of vision afforded by the endoscope may be advantageous for complete resection of large tumors.3  Generally, despite an absence of studies directly comparing relative remission and complication rates between microscopic versus endoscopic approaches, most surgical centers choose to use one or the other; few have both.3

Examining the Surgical Options to Manage Cushing’s Disease

The second systematic review is the first to compare remission and recurrence rates, and mortality after microscopic versus endoscopic transsphenoidal pituitary surgery for Cushing’s disease.3 The review included 97 studies of 6695 patients: 5711 individuals having the microscopic procedure and 984 undergoing endoscopic surgery.

Results of the meta-analysis found no clear difference between the two techniques in overall remission (80%) or recurrence (10%).3 Short-term mortality for both techniques was < 0.5%. However, endoscopic surgery was associated with a greater occurrence of cerebrospinal fluid leak (12.9 vs 4.0%) but a lesser occurrence of transient diabetes insipidus (11.3 vs 21.7%).3

The authors reported a higher percentage of patients in remission (76.3 vs. 59.9%) and lower percentage recurrence rates (1.5 vs 17.0%) among patients undergoing endoscopic surgery for macroadenomas.3

When interviewed regarding the second meta-analysis,3 Dr. Geer said that the potential benefit of endoscopy over microscopy has been questioned for ACTH-secreting tumors specifically since most are microadenomas.

“With the caveat that few studies (four of the 97 reviewed) compared techniques directly, Broersen et al3 found that endoscopic surgery was associated with higher remission rates compared to microscopic surgery for large tumors, but the two techniques were comparable for small tumors,” said Dr. Geer, however, “one limitation of these data is the lack of standardized criteria to define diagnosis and remission of Cushing’s among the studies reviewed.”

Need for Consistency in Clinical Trials and Surgical Expertise

The study investigators concluded, “endoscopic surgery for patients with Cushing’s disease reaches comparable results for microadenomas, and probably better results for macroadenomas than microscopic surgery,” despite the greater learning curve associated with endoscopic surgery.3 As such, based on their findings, the authors concluded that “endoscopic surgery may thus be considered the current standard of care. Microscopic surgery can be used based on neurosurgeon’s preference.” They did not respond to EndocrineWeb for a request for comment.

As more neurosurgeons receiving training with the endoscope, the preferred technique for pituitary surgery is changing. Dr. Geer said, “Broersen’s review provides reassurance that the newer endoscopic technique is at least equal to the microscope for microadenomas and may be preferred for macroadenomas.”

“However, [conclusions based on the systematic review] do not change our role as endocrinologists treating Cushing’s disease, which is to refer, when indicated, to the available neurosurgeon with the most favorable outcomes and lowest rate of complications, both of which depend directly on level of experience with the procedure and the instrument being used, whether endoscope or microscope,” she said.

The authors had no financial conflicts to declare.

From https://www.endocrineweb.com/professional/cushings/cushings-syndrome-eludes-treatment-paradigm-standard-approach-care

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