Updated Cushing’s disease guideline highlights new diagnosis, treatment ‘roadmap’

An updated guideline for the treatment of Cushing’s disease focuses on new therapeutic options and an algorithm for screening and diagnosis, along with best practices for managing disease recurrence.

Despite the recent approval of novel therapies, management of Cushing’s disease remains challenging. The disorder is associated with significant comorbidities and has high mortality if left uncontrolled.

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“As the disease is inexorable and chronic, patients often experience recurrence after surgery or are not responsive to medications,” Shlomo Melmed, MB, ChB, MACP, dean, executive vice president and professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and an Endocrine Today Editorial Board Member, told Healio. “These guidelines enable navigation of optimal therapeutic options now available for physicians and patients. Especially helpful are the evidence-based patient flow charts [that] guide the physician along a complex management path, which usually entails years or decades of follow-up.”

Shlomo Melmed

The Pituitary Society convened a consensus workshop with more than 50 academic researchers and clinical experts across five continents to discuss the application of recent evidence to clinical practice. In advance of the virtual meeting, participants reviewed data from January 2015 to April 2021 on screening and diagnosis; surgery, medical and radiation therapy; and disease-related and treatment-related complications of Cushing’s disease, all summarized in recorded lectures. The guideline includes recommendations regarding use of laboratory tests, imaging and treatment options, along with algorithms for diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome and management of Cushing’s disease.

Updates in laboratory, testing guidance

If Cushing’s syndrome is suspected, any of the available diagnostic tests could be useful, according to the guideline. The authors recommend starting with urinary free cortisol, late-night salivary cortisol, overnight 1 mg dexamethasone suppression, or a combination, depending on local availability.

If an adrenal tumor is suspected, the guideline recommends overnight dexamethasone suppression and using late-night salivary cortisol only if cortisone concentrations can also be reported.

The guideline includes several new recommendations in the diagnosis arena, particularly on the role of salivary cortisol assays, according to Maria Fleseriu, MD, FACE, a Healio | Endocrine Today Co-editor, professor of medicine and neurological surgery and director of the Pituitary Center at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

Maria Fleseriu

“Salivary cortisol assays are not available in all countries, thus other screening tests can also be used,” Fleseriu told Healio. “We also highlighted the sequence of testing for recurrence, as many patients’ urinary free cortisol becomes abnormal later in the course, sometimes up to 1 year later.”

The guideline states combined biochemical and imaging for select patients could potentially replace petrosal sinus sampling, a very specialized procedure that cannot be performed in all hospitals, but more data are needed.

“With the corticotropin-releasing hormone stimulation test becoming unavailable in the U.S. and other countries, the focus is now on desmopressin to replace corticotropin-releasing hormone in some of the dynamic testing, both for diagnosis of pseudo-Cushing’s as well as localization of adrenocorticotropic hormone excess,” Fleseriu said.

The guideline also has a new recommendation for anticoagulation for high-risk patients; however, the exact duration and which patients are at higher risk remains unknown.

“We always have to balance risk for clotting with risk for bleeding postop,” Fleseriu said. “Similarly, recommended workups for bone disease and growth hormone deficiency have been further structured based on pitfalls specifically related to hypercortisolemia influencing these complications, as well as improvement after Cushing’s remission in some patients, but not all.”

New treatment options

The guideline authors recommended individualizing medical therapy for all patients with Cushing’s disease based on the clinical scenario, including severity of hypercortisolism. “Regulatory approvals, treatment availability and drug costs vary between countries and often influence treatment selection,” the authors wrote. “However, where possible, it is important to consider balancing cost of treatment with the cost and the adverse consequences of ineffective or insufficient treatment. In patients with severe disease, the primary goal is to treat aggressively to normalize cortisol concentrations.”

Fleseriu said the authors reviewed outcomes data as well as pros and cons of surgery, repeat surgery, medical treatments, radiation and bilateral adrenalectomy, highlighting the importance of individualized treatment in Cushing’s disease.

“As shown over the last few years, recurrence rates are much higher than previously thought and patients need to be followed lifelong,” Fleseriu said. “The role of adjuvant therapy after either failed pituitary surgery or recurrence is becoming more important, but preoperative or even primary medical treatment has been also used more, too, especially in the COVID-19 era.”

The guideline summarized data on all medical treatments available, either approved by regulatory agencies or used off-label, as well as drugs studied in phase 3 clinical trials.

“Based on great discussions at the meeting and subsequent emails to reach consensus, we highlighted and graded recommendations on several practical points,” Fleseriu said. “These include which factors are helpful in selection of a medical therapy, which factors are used in selecting an adrenal steroidogenesis inhibitor, how is tumor growth monitored when using an adrenal steroidogenesis inhibitor or glucocorticoid receptor blocker, and how treatment response is monitored for each therapy. We also outline which factors are considered in deciding whether to use combination therapy or to switch to another therapy and which agents are used for optimal combination therapy.”

Future research needed

The guideline authors noted more research is needed regarding screening and diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome; researchers must optimize pituitary MRI and PET imaging using improved data acquisition and processing to improve microadenoma detection. New diagnostic algorithms are also needed for the differential diagnosis using invasive vs. noninvasive strategies. Additionally, the researchers said the use of anticoagulant prophylaxis and therapy in different populations and settings must be further studied, as well as determining the clinical benefit of restoring the circadian rhythm, potentially with a higher nighttime medication dose, as well as identifying better markers of disease activity and control.

“Hopefully, our patients will now experience a higher quality of life and fewer comorbidities if their endocrinologist and care teams are equipped with this informative roadmap for integrated management, employing a consolidation of surgery, radiation and medical treatments,” Melmed told Healio.

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