Recurrent Neuroendocrine Tumor of the Cervix Presenting With Ectopic Cushing’s Syndrome


Neuroendocrine carcinomas (NEC) of the cervix are a rare disease entity and account for only 1-2% of cervical carcinomas. The small-cell variant is the most common, with a worse prognosis and a higher rate of lymphatic and hematogenous metastases when compared with other subtypes of NEC. The diagnosis is usually made when the extra-pelvic disease is already apparent. Cushing’s syndrome due to adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-secreting tumors of the cervix is exceedingly rare. To date, there have been no reported cases in the literature of Cushing’s syndrome induced by the recurrence of metastases years after the initial diagnosis. This is a case of recurrent small-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma of the cervix presenting with Cushing’s syndrome five years after her original diagnosis. We present here the workup, management, and follow-up of this patient, including multisystemic, coordinated medical care.


Neuroendocrine carcinomas (NECs) are heterogenous groups of tumors derived from neuroendocrine cells. NECs of the cervix are rare and account for 1-2% of all cervical carcinomas, with the small-cell variant being the most common [1,2]. Small-cell NECs have a high rate of lymphatic and hematogenous metastasis even when the carcinoma is limited to the cervix. Patients usually present at a late stage, with the extra-pelvic disease being apparent at the time of diagnosis [2]. Among the different histologic variants of NEC of the cervix, the small-cell variant has the highest rate of recurrence [3]. Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-secreting tumors of the cervix are rare [4]. We present a case of recurrent metastatic NEC of the cervix five years after the original diagnosis of NEC of the cervix, now presenting with Cushing’s syndrome [1,2].

Case Presentation

A 39-year-old female with a history of recurrent small-cell cervical cancer presented to the emergency department (ED) of our hospital with complaints of weight gain, generalized facial edema, lightheadedness, tingling sensation of her entire face, bilateral leg edema, and abdominal distention.

Her problems started a month prior to her ED visit, when she started to complain of abdominal distention. She had a computed tomography (CT) abdomen with contrast, which revealed evidence of metastatic disease, including multiple large liver lesions (Figure 1). Subsequently, she had a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which confirmed the presence of hypermetabolic lesions in the right peritonsillar tissue, liver, right lower quadrant of the abdomen, and bilateral pulmonary nodules with lymphadenopathy in the left hilum (Figure 2). A liver biopsy was done, with the final pathology consistent with recurrent NEC of the cervix. She was started on cisplatin, etoposide, and atezolizumab by gynecologic oncology but started to develop facial swelling and progressive abdominal distention, prompting this ED consult and subsequent admission.

Figure 1: Abdomial CT with contrast done one month prior showed evidence of metastatic disease including multiple large liver lesions.
Figure 2: PET/CT demonstrated the presence of hypermetabolic lesions in the liver and right lower quadrant of the abdomen.

She had a significant medical history of being diagnosed with cervical cancer (FIGO stage 1B2 NEC) five years prior by gynecologic oncology, at which time she underwent concurrent chemo-radiation followed by surgical assessment of her pelvic lymph nodes with robotic pelvic lymph node dissection and bilateral ovarian transposition to avoid premature menopause. She was subsequently treated with cisplatin and pelvic radiation. She had a follow-up cervical biopsy several months after chemotherapy, which showed persistent NEC, but her PET scan showed no evidence of metastatic disease. After undergoing a robotic total laparoscopic hysterectomy, the final pathology showed a persistent microscopic focus of NEC of the cervix with negative margins. She received adjuvant chemotherapy with cisplatin and etoposide for six cycles with regular follow-up pap smears and annual PET scans, with no evidence of recurrence for five years.

On admission, her vital signs were: blood pressure = 129/79 mm Hg, pulse rate = 85/min, respiratory rate = 18/min, and temperature = 98.5 °F (36.9 °C). Her physical examination was notable for moon facies (a noticeable change from her pictures as recent as two months prior), supraclavicular and dorsocervical fat pads, multiple bruises on her arms, edema of her face and legs, acne of her face and neck, and hair growth of her chin area. No purple striae were seen on the abdomen.

Laboratory tests revealed leukopenia and thrombocytopenia (which were attributed to her chemotherapy), recently diagnosed diabetes (occasional hyperglycemia and HbA1c 7.7%), and electrolyte imbalances (hypokalemia and hypophosphatemia) (Table 1).

Sodium 142 mEq/L (135–145 mEq/L)
Potassium 2.0 mEq/L (3.5–5.0 mEq/L)
Chloride 98 mEq/L (98–108 mEq/L)
CO2 35 mEq/L (21–32 mEq/L)
Anion gap 9 mEq/L (8–16 mEq/L)
BUN 14 mg/dL (7–13 mEq/L)
Creatinine 1.13 mg/dL (0.6–1.1 mg/dL)
Glucose 460 mg/dL (74–100 mg/dL)
Calcium 7.8 mg/dL (8.5–10.1 mg/dL)
Phosphorous 1.0 mg/dL (2.5–4.5 mg/dL)
Albumin 2.5 mg/dL (3.1–4.5 mg/dL)
AST 43 U/L (15–27 U/L)
ALT 76 U/L (12–78 U/L)
White blood cell count 0.6 k/cmm (4.5–10.0 k/cmm)
Red blood cell count 3.55 million cells/μL (3.7–5 × 2)
Hemoglobin 11.9 g/dL (12.0–16.0)
Hematocrit 34.3% (35.0–47.0)
Platelet 45 k/cmm (150–440 k/cmm)
Table 1: Initial laboratory work showed leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, hyperglycemia, hypokalemia, and hypophosphatemia.

AST: aspartate aminotransferase, CO2: carbon dioxide, BUN: blood urea nitrogen, ALT: alanine aminotransferase.

Her chest X-ray showed bilateral pleural effusions. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain showed no evidence of pituitary masses, abnormalities, or metastatic disease in the brain. A CT of the chest showed new bilateral non-calcified lung nodules when compared to the previous PET scan, pathologic-sized left hilar adenopathy, and multiple peripherally enhancing hepatic nodules and masses (Figure 3). The adrenal glands were unremarkable. Workup for facial swelling and bilateral leg edema showed no evidence of superior vena cava (SVC) syndrome on both her chest CT and transthoracic echocardiogram.

Figure 3: Contrast-enhanced chest CT showing bilateral noncalcified lung nodules.

She was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) and started on empiric antibiotics and filgrastim for neutropenia. Replacement therapy for both hypokalemia and hypophosphatemia was given. After both electrolytes were normalized, the patient was started on basal-bolus insulin therapy.

Based on her clinic presentation of excessive weight gain, new-onset hyperglycemia, hypertension with hypokalemia, and a history of NEC, suspicion of Cushing’s syndrome was high. Further workup showed elevated serum cortisol after 1 mg overnight dexamethasone suppression, elevated 24-hour urine cortisol, and elevated midnight salivary cortisol, which confirmed Cushing’s syndrome (Table 2). ACTH was also elevated, but dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) was normal. Thyroid function tests showed a slightly low free thyroxine, but this was attributed to an acute illness.

HgbA1C 7.7% (4.0-6.0%)
ACTH 1207 pg/mL (7.2–63.3 pg/mL)
24-hour urine cortisol 7070 μg/24 hr (6–42 μg/24 hr)
Salivary cortisol >1.000 μg /dL (0.025–0.600 μg/dL)
Serum cortisol after 1 mg overnight dexamethasone suppression 143.0 μg/dL (3.1–16.7 μg/dL)
Total testosterone 77 ng/dL (14–76 ng/dL)
DHEAS 250.0 μg/dL (57.3–279.2 μg/dL)
Chromogranin A 970.9 ng/mL (0.0–101.8 ng/mL)
TSH 0.572 mIU/L (0.358–3.74mIU/L)
Free T4 0.70 ng/dl (0.76–1.46) ng/dl
Table 2: Work up showed elevated ACTH, elevated 24-hour urine cortisol, elevated salivary cortisol, and elevated serum cortisol after 1 mg overnight dexamethasone suppression test.

HgbA1C: hemoglobin A1C; ACTH: adrenocorticotropic hormone; DHEAS: dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate; TSH: thyroid stimulating hormone; free T4: free thyroxine.

A diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome due to metastatic small-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma of the cervix was assumed. A bilateral adrenalectomy, which is the definitive treatment of hypercortisolism when surgical removal of the source of excess ACTH is done, was not done because gynecologic oncology wanted to treat her with chemotherapy urgently due to her metastases and the nature of the disease and felt that surgery and recovery would delay the start of chemotherapy. Ketoconazole was felt to be a poor choice in the setting of liver metastases with worsening liver function tests. The patient was thus started on mifepristone 300 mg daily, as it is indicated for hypercortisolism secondary to endogenous Cushing’s syndrome with diabetes. Nephrology was consulted, and potassium supplementation was transitioned to oral potassium chloride 40 meq tablets four times a day; spironolactone 50 mg twice daily was added for the hypokalemia and hypertension, which occurred after the patient started bevacizumab. Hypokalemia is a common side effect of mifepristone therapy due to the glucocorticoid receptor blockade, which leads to cortisol’s spillover effect on unopposed mineralocorticoid receptors. She was discharged home with a basal-bolus insulin regimen.

Her posthospitalization course was complicated by compression fractures of her lumbar spine one week after discharge with no history of falls. An MRI of the spine showed chronic compression fractures of the T11-L3 vertebral bodies with no evidence of osseous metastatic disease. Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scan interpretation demonstrated osteoporosis. Vertebral fracture assessment showed morphometric fractures in the lower thoracic and upper lumbar vertebrae. She was subsequently treated with IV administration of 5 mg of zoledronic acid. She was also readmitted multiple times after her initial admission due to the patient’s developing neutropenic fever, which was treated with filgrastim and antibiotics.

After starting mifepristone, her glycemic control improved to the point that insulin therapy could be subsequently discontinued. Her liver enzymes normalized, and ketoconazole was subsequently added for adjunct therapy to treat hypercortisolism, but the dose could not be optimized due to persistently elevated liver function tests. Hypokalemia management and resistant hypertension were additional challenges encountered by this patient.

At her follow-up visits, she had notably lost weight with the improvement of her leg edema. She continued to follow up with a nephrologist on an outpatient basis, and her normal potassium levels were normal on 40 meq of oral potassium chloride tablets four times a day and spironolactone 150 mg twice a day. She was followed up closely by her gynecologic oncologist and was on bevacizumab, topotecan, and paclitaxel before her unfortunate demise a few months later.


Cushing’s syndrome due to ectopic ACTH secretion only represents 9-18% of cases. Most primary endocrine tumors responsible for ectopic ACTH secretion are located in the chest [5]. Abdominal and retroperitoneal neuroendocrine tumors are the second- and third-most reported sites [5]. Neuroendocrine tumors of the cervix are incredibly rare [6-9].

A unique feature of this case is that the patient presented with Cushing’s syndrome due to neuroendocrine tumor metastases found five years after the primary site of the tumor was resected. For this patient, a biopsy of the liver confirmed a metastatic neuroendocrine tumor, but it is unknown if the other sites of metastases are implicated in the production of excess ACTH.

The management of this disease focuses on controlling hypercortisolism, consequent hyperglycemia, and hypokalemia. Surgical excision of ACTH-secreting neuroendocrine tumors is the most effective, but in cases where that is not possible, bilateral adrenalectomy and medical treatment are the next best treatments for this disease entity [10]. For this patient, bilateral adrenalectomy was not done as gynecologic oncology wanted to treat her with chemotherapy urgently due to the metastases and nature of the disease and felt that surgery and recovery would delay the start of chemotherapy.

We provided medical management for the patient’s hypercortisolism. Pharmacological therapy for hypercortisolism can be categorized into immediate-acting steroidogenesis inhibitors (metyrapone, ketoconazole, and etomidate), slow-acting cortisol-lowering drugs (mitotane), and glucocorticoid receptor antagonists (mifepristone) [5]. We initially chose mifepristone because it is indicated in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus and could be given safely despite the patient’s worsening liver function levels [11].

As demonstrated, the management of recurrent hypokalemia proved challenging in this patient. The phenomenon is well known to be induced by ectopic ACTH. Several mechanisms contribute to this. Activation of renal tubular type 1 (mineralocorticoid) receptors by cortisol is thought to be the mechanism that applies mainly to patients with severe hypercortisolism due to ectopic ACTH secretion. Additionally, there may also be an increase in the production of renin substrate from the liver. The high serum cortisol concentrations may not be completely inactivated by 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 in the kidney and overwhelm its ability to convert cortisol to cortisone, resulting in activation of mineralocorticoid receptors resulting in potassium loss in the distal tubules [12]. Hypokalemia may also result from adrenal hypersecretion of mineralocorticoids, such as deoxycorticosterone and corticosterone. This can also be amplified by mifepristone, as it is a glucocorticoid receptor antagonist that increases circulating cortisol levels [12].

Complications such as hypokalemia, hyperglycemia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, infections, muscle wasting, hypertension, and bone fractures can occur and can arise at any time throughout the course of the disease when urine-free cortisol is fivefold or more above the upper limit of normal [5]. Ketoconazole was initially considered for medical treatment, but due to mildly elevated liver enzymes during the initial presentation, we decided to use mifepristone instead. A small cohort study showed that severe hypercortisolism and increased baseline transaminase levels could be due to cortisol-induced hepatic steatosis [13]. Later in her course, ketoconazole was added to her mifepristone therapy to decrease adrenal cortisol production. Unfortunately, her dose could not be increased due to the patient’s persistently elevated liver enzymes.

Recurrent pancytopenia due to chemotherapy contributed to the protracted nature of this patient’s clinical course. Due to cortisol’s immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory effects, opportunistic infections can arise [14]. Since her initial hospitalization, she has been readmitted several times due to neutropenic fever, which was treated with filgrastim and antibiotics.


Ectopic Cushing’s syndrome due to metastatic neuroendocrine small-cell carcinoma is a rare condition with a poor prognosis. The options for treatment are few and not necessarily curative. There needs to be increased awareness of this serious and rare complication. Managing the condition can be a challenge and requires a multidisciplinary team approach to improve outcomes.


  1. Cohen JG, Kapp DS, Shin JY, et al.: Small cell carcinoma of the cervix: treatment and survival outcomes of 188 patients. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2010, 203:347.e1-6. 10.1016/j.ajog.2010.04.019
  2. Salvo G, Gonzalez Martin A, Gonzales NR, Frumovitz M: Updates and management algorithm for neuroendocrine tumors of the uterine cervix. Int J Gynecol Cancer. 2019, 29:986-95. 10.1136/ijgc-2019-000504
  3. Stecklein SR, Jhingran A, Burzawa J, Ramalingam P, Klopp AH, Eifel PJ, Frumovitz M: Patterns of recurrence and survival in neuroendocrine cervical cancer. Gynecol Oncol. 2016, 143:552-7. 10.1016/j.ygyno.2016.09.011
  4. Chen J, Macdonald OK, Gaffney DK: Incidence, mortality, and prognostic factors of small cell carcinoma of the cervix. Obstet Gynecol. 2008, 111:1394-402. 10.1097/AOG.0b013e318173570b
  5. Young J, Haissaguerre M, Viera-Pinto O, Chabre O, Baudin E, Tabarin A: Management of Endocrine Disease: Cushing’s syndrome due to ectopic ACTH secretion: an expert operational opinion. Eur J Endocrinol. 2020, 182:R29-58. 10.1530/EJE-19-0877
  6. Hashi A, Yasumizu T, Yoda I, et al.: A case of small cell carcinoma of the uterine cervix presenting Cushing’s syndrome. Gynecol Oncol. 1996, 61:427-31. 10.1006/gyno.1996.0168
  7. Iemura K, Sonoda T, Hayakawa A, et al.: Small cell carcinoma of the uterine cervix showing Cushing’s syndrome caused by ectopic adrenocorticotropin hormone production. Jpn J Clin Oncol. 1991, 21:293-8.
  8. Barghouthi N, Perini J, Cheng J: Ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone production: a case of neuroendocrine cervical small cell carcinoma presenting as Cushing syndrome. AACE Clin Case Rep. 2018, 4:e367-e369. 10.4158/ACCR-2018-0080
  9. Di Filippo L, Vitali G, Taccagni G, Pedica F, Guaschino G, Bosi E, Martinenghi S: Cervix neuroendocrine carcinoma presenting with severe hypokalemia and Cushing’s syndrome. Endocrine. 2020, 67:318-20. 10.1007/s12020-020-02202-x
  10. Ilias I, Torpy DJ, Pacak K, Mullen N, Wesley RA, Nieman LK: Cushing’s syndrome due to ectopic corticotropin secretion: twenty years’ experience at the National Institutes of Health. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2005, 90:4955-62. 10.1210/jc.2004-2527
  11. Biller BM, Grossman AB, Stewart PM, et al.: Treatment of adrenocorticotropin-dependent Cushing’s syndrome: a consensus statement. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008, 93:2454-62. 10.1210/jc.2007-2734
  12. Fleseriu M, Biller BM, Findling JW, Molitch ME, Schteingart DE, Gross 😄 Mifepristone, a glucocorticoid receptor antagonist, produces clinical and metabolic benefits in patients with Cushing’s syndrome. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012, 97:2039-49. 10.1210/jc.2011-3350
  13. Young J, Bertherat J, Vantyghem MC, Chabre O, Senoussi S, Chadarevian R, Castinetti F: Hepatic safety of ketoconazole in Cushing’s syndrome: results of a Compassionate Use Programme in France. Eur J Endocrinol. 2018, 178:447-58. 10.1530/EJE-17-0886
  14. Sarlis NJ, Chanock SJ, Nieman LK: Cortisolemic indices predict severe infections in Cushing syndrome due to ectopic production of adrenocorticotropin. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2000, 85:42-47. 10.1210/jcem.85.1.6294



Challenging Case of Ectopic ACTH Secretion from Prostate Adenocarcinoma


Cushing’s syndrome (CS) secondary to ectopic adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH)-producing prostate cancer is rare with less than 50 cases reported. The diagnosis can be challenging due to atypical and variable clinical presentations of this uncommon source of ectopic ACTH secretion. We report a case of Cushing’s syndrome secondary to prostate adenocarcinoma who presented with symptoms of severe hypercortisolism with recurrent hypokalaemia, limb oedema, limb weakness, and sepsis. He presented with severe hypokalaemia and metabolic alkalosis (potassium 2.5 mmol/L and bicarbonate 36 mmol/L), with elevated 8 am cortisol 1229 nmol/L. ACTH-dependent Cushing’s syndrome was diagnosed with inappropriately normal ACTH 57.4 ng/L, significantly elevated 24-hour urine free cortisol and unsuppressed cortisol after 1 mg low-dose, 2-day low-dose, and 8 mg high-dose dexamethasone suppression tests. 68Ga-DOTANOC PET/CT showed an increase in DOTANOC avidity in the prostate gland, and his prostate biopsy specimen was stained positive for ACTH and markers for neuroendocrine differentiation. He was started on ketoconazole, which was switched to IV octreotide in view of liver dysfunction from hepatic metastases. He eventually succumbed to the disease after 3 months of his diagnosis. It is imperative to recognize prostate carcinoma as a source of ectopic ACTH secretion as it is associated with poor clinical outcomes, and the diagnosis can be missed due to atypical clinical presentations.

1. Introduction

Ectopic secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is responsible for approximately 10–20% of all causes of Cushing syndrome [1]. The classic sources of ectopic ACTH secretion include bronchial carcinoid tumours, small cell lung carcinoma, thymoma, medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC), gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (NET), and phaeochromocytomas [2]. Ectopic adrenocorticotropic syndrome (EAS) is diagnostically challenging due to its variable clinical manifestations; however, prompt recognition and treatment is critical. Ectopic ACTH production from prostate carcinoma is rare, and there are less than 50 cases published to date. Here, we report a case of ectopic Cushing’s syndrome secondary to prostate adenocarcinoma who did not present with the typical physical features of Cushing’s syndrome, but instead with features of severe hypercortisolism such as hypokalaemia, oedema, and sepsis.

2. Case Presentation

A 61-year-old male presented to our institution with recurrent hypokalaemia, lower limb weakness, and oedema. He had a history of recently diagnosed metastatic prostate adenocarcinoma, for which he was started on leuprolide and finasteride. Other medical history includes poorly controlled diabetes mellitus and hypertension of 1-year duration. He presented with hypokalaemia of 2.7 mmol/L associated with bilateral lower limb oedema and weakness, initially attributed to the intake of complementary medicine, which resolved with potassium supplementation and cessation of the complementary medicine. One month later, he was readmitted for refractory hypokalaemia of 2.5 mmol/L and progression of the lower limb weakness and oedema. On examination, his blood pressure (BP) was 121/78 mmHg, and body mass index (BMI) was 24 kg/m2. He had no Cushingoid features of rounded and plethoric facies, supraclavicular or dorsocervical fat pad, ecchymoses, and no purple striae on the abdominal examination. He had mild bilateral lower limb proximal weakness and oedema.

His initial laboratory findings of severe hypokalaemia with metabolic alkalosis (potassium 2.5 mmol/L and bicarbonate 36 mmol/L), raised 24-hour urine potassium (86 mmol/L), suppressed plasma renin activity and aldosterone, central hypothyroidism, and elevated morning serum cortisol (1229 nmol/L) (Table 1) raised the suspicion for endogenous hypercortisolism. Furthermore, hormonal evaluations confirmed ACTH-dependent Cushing’s syndrome with inappropriately normal ACTH (56 ng/L) and failure of cortisol suppression after 1 mg low-dose, 2-day low-dose, and 8 mg high-dose dexamethasone suppression tests (Table 2). His 24-hour urine free cortisol (UFC) was significantly elevated at 20475 (59–413) nmol/day.

Table 1 
Investigations done during his 2nd admission.
Table 2 
Diagnostic workup for hypercortisolism.

To identify the source of excessive cortisol secretion, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the pituitary fossa and computed tomography (CT) of the thorax, abdomen, and pelvis were performed. Pituitary MRI was unremarkable, and CT scan showed the known prostate lesion with extensive liver, lymph nodes, and bone metastases (Figure 1). To confirm that the prostate cancer was the source of ectopic ACTH production, gallium-68 labelled somatostatin receptor positron emission tomography (PET)/CT (68Ga-DOTANOC) was done, which showed an increased DOTANOC avidity in the inferior aspect of the prostate gland (Figure 2). Immunohistochemical staining of his prostate biopsy specimen was requested, and it stained positive for ACTH and markers of neuroendocrine differentiation (synaptophysin and CD 56) (Figures 3 and 4), establishing the diagnosis of EAS secondary to prostate cancer.

Figure 1 
CT thorax abdomen and pelvis showing prostate cancer (blue arrow) with liver metastases (red arrow).
Figure 2 
Ga68-DOTANOC PET/CT demonstrating increased DOTANOC avidity seen in the inferior aspect of the right side of the prostate gland (red arrow).
Figure 3 
Hematoxylin and eosin staining showing acinar adenocarcinoma of the prostate featuring enlarged, pleomorphic cells infiltrating as solid nests and cords with poorly differentiated glands (Gleason score 5 + 4 = 9).
Figure 4 
Positive ACTH immunohistochemical staining of prostate tumour (within the circle).

The patient was started on potassium chloride 3.6 g 3 times daily and spironolactone 25 mg once daily with normalisation of serum potassium. His BP was controlled with the addition of lisinopril and terazosin to spironolactone and ketoconazole, and his blood glucose was well controlled with metformin and sitagliptin. To manage the hypercortisolism, he was treated with ketoconazole 400 mg twice daily with an initial improvement of serum cortisol from 2048 nmol/L to 849 nmol/L (Figure 5). Systemic platinum and etoposide-based chemotherapy was recommended for the treatment of his prostate cancer after a multidisciplinary discussion, but it was delayed due to severe bacterial and viral infection. With the development of liver dysfunction, ketoconazole was switched to intravenous octreotide 100 mcg three times daily as metyrapone was not readily available in our country. However, the efficacy was suboptimal with marginal reduction of serum cortisol from 3580 nmol/L to 3329 nmol/L (Figure 5). The patient continued to deteriorate and was deemed to be medically unfit for chemotherapy or bilateral adrenalectomy. He was referred to palliative care services, and he eventually demised due to cancer progression within 3 months of his diagnosis.

Figure 5 
The trend in cortisol levels on pharmacological therapy.

3. Discussion

Ectopic ACTH secretion is an uncommon cause of Cushing’s syndrome accounting for approximately 9–18% of the patients with Cushing’s syndrome [3]. Clinical presentation is highly variable depending on the aggressiveness of the underlying malignancy, but patients typically present with symptoms of severe hypercortisolism such as hypokalaemiaa, oedema, and proximal weakness which were the presenting complaints of our patient [4]. The classical symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome are frequently absent due to the rapid clinic onset resulting in diagnostic delay [5].

Prompt diagnosis and localisation of the source of ectopic ACTH secretion are crucial due to the urgent need for treatment initiation. The usual sources include small cell lung carcinoma, bronchial carcinoid, medullary thyroid carcinoma, thymic carcinoid, and pheochromocytoma. CT of the thorax, abdomen, and pelvis should be the first-line imaging modality, and its sensitivity varies with the type of tumour ranging from 77% to 85% [6]. Functional imaging such as 18-fluorodeoxyglucose-PET and gallium-68 labelled somatostatin receptor PET/CT can be useful in localising the source of occult EAS, determining the neuroendocrine nature of the tumour or staging the underlying malignancy [36]. As prostate cancer is an unusual cause of EAS, we proceeded with 68Ga-DOTANOC PET/CT in our patient to localise the source of ectopic ACTH production.

The goals of management in EAS include treating the hormonal excess and the underlying neoplasm as well as managing the complications secondary to hypercortisolism [3]. Prompt management of the cortisol excess is paramount as complications such as hyperglycaemia, hypertension, hypokalaemia, pulmonary embolism, sepsis, and psychosis can develop especially when UFC is more than 5 times the upper limit of normal [3]. Ideally, surgical resection is the first-line management, but this may not be feasible in metastatic, advanced, or occult diseases.

Pharmacological agents are frequently required with steroidogenesis inhibitors such as ketoconazole and metyrapone, which reduce cortisol production effectively and rapidly [36], the main drawback of ketoconazole being its hepatic toxicity. The efficacy of ketoconazole is reported to be 44%, metyrapone 50–75%, and ketoconazole-metyrapone combination therapy 73% [37]. Mitotane, typically used in adrenocortical carcinoma, is effective in controlling cortisol excess but has a slow onset of action [38]. Etomidate infusion can be used for short-term rapid control of severe symptomatic hypercortisolism and can serve as a bridge to definitive therapy [9]. Mifepristone, a glucocorticoid receptor antagonist, is indicated mainly in difficult to control hyperglycaemia secondary to hypercortisolism [8]. Somatostatin analogue has been proposed as a possible pharmacological therapy due to the expression of somatostatin receptors by ACTH secreting tumours [810]. Bilateral adrenalectomy should be considered in patients with severe symptomatic hypercortisolism and life-threatening complications who cannot be optimally managed with medical therapies, especially in patients with occult EAS or metastatic disease [38]. Bilateral adrenalectomy results in immediate improvement in cortisol levels and symptoms secondary to hypercortisolism [11]. However, surgical complications, morbidity, and mortality are high in patients with uncontrolled hypercortisolism [8], and our patient was deemed by his oncologist and surgeon to have too high a risk for bilateral adrenalectomy. For the treatment of prostate carcinoma, platinum and etoposide-based chemotherapies have been used, but their efficacy is limited with a median survival of 7.5 months [412]. The side effects of chemotherapy can be severe with an enhanced risk of infection due to both cortisol and chemotherapy-mediated immunosuppression. Prompt control of hypercortisolism prior to chemotherapy and surgical procedure is strongly suggested to attenuate life-threatening complications such as infection, thrombosis, and bleeding with chemotherapy or surgery as well as to improve prognosis [313].

There are rare reports of ectopic ACTH secretion from prostate carcinoma. These tumours were predominantly of small cell or mixed cell type, and pure adenocarcinoma with neuroendocrine differentiation are less common [45]. There is a strong correlation between the prognosis and the types of malignancy in patients with EAS, and patients with prostate carcinoma have a poor prognosis [4]. These patients had metastatic disease at presentation, and the median survival was weeks to months despite medical treatment, chemotherapy, and even bilateral adrenalectomy [4], as seen with our patient who passed away within 3 months of his diagnosis.

In conclusion, adenocarcinoma of the prostate is a rare cause of EAS. The diagnosis and management are complex and challenging requiring specialised expertise with multidisciplinary involvement. The presentation can be atypical, and it is imperative to suspect and recognise prostate carcinoma as a source of ectopic ACTH secretion. Prompt initiation of treatment is important, as it is a rapidly progressive and aggressive disease associated with intense hypercortisolism resulting in high rates of mortality and morbidity.

Data Availability

The data used to support the findings of this study are included within the article.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest.


The authors would like to thank the Pathology Department of Changi General Hospital for their contribution to this case.


  1. I. Ilias, D. J. Torpy, K. Pacak, N. Mullen, R. A. Wesley, and L. K. Nieman, “Cushing’s syndrome due to ectopic corticotropin secretion: twenty years’ experience at the national institutes of health,” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, vol. 90, no. 8, pp. 4955–4962, 2005.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  2. J. Newell-Price, P. Trainer, M. Besser, and A. Grossman, “The diagnosis and differential diagnosis of cushing’s syndrome and pseudo-cushing’s states,” Endocrine Reviews, vol. 19, no. 5, pp. 647–672, 1998.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  3. J. Young, M. Haissaguerre, O. Viera-Pinto, O. Chabre, E. Baudin, and A. Tabarin, “Management of endocrine disease: cushing’s syndrome due to ectopic ACTH secretion: an expert operational opinion,” European Journal of Endocrinology, vol. 182, no. 4, pp. R29–R58, 2020.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  4. M. S. Elston, V. B. Crawford, M. Swarbrick, M. S. Dray, M. Head, and J. V. Conaglen, “Severe Cushing’s syndrome due to small cell prostate carcinoma: a case and review of literature,” Endocrine Connections, vol. 6, no. 5, pp. R80–R86, 2017.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  5. O. M. Alshaikh, A. A. Al-Mahfouz, H. Al-Hindi, A. B. Mahfouz, and A. S. Alzahrani, “Unusual cause of ectopic secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone: cushing syndrome attributable to small cell prostate cancer,” Endocrine Practice, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 249–254, 2010.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  6. A. Sundin, R. Arnold, E. Baudin et al., “ENETS consensus guidelines for the standards of care in neuroendocrine tumors: radiological, nuclear medicine and hybrid imaging,” Neuroendocrinology, vol. 105, no. 3, pp. 212–244, 2017.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  7. J.-B. Corcuff, J. Young, P. Masquefa-Giraud, P. Chanson, E. Baudin, and A. Tabarin, “Rapid control of severe neoplastic hypercortisolism with metyrapone and ketoconazole,” European Journal of Endocrinology, vol. 172, no. 4, pp. 473–481, 2015.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  8. L. K. Nieman, B. M. K. Biller, J. W. Findling et al., “Treatment of cushing’s syndrome: an endocrine society clinical practice guideline,” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, vol. 100, no. 8, pp. 2807–2831, 2015.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  9. T. B. Carroll, W. J. Peppard, D. J. Herrmann et al., “Continuous etomidate infusion for the management of severe cushing syndrome: validation of a standard protocol,” Journal of the Endocrine Society, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 1–12, 2019.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  10. K. Von Werder, O. A. Muller, and G. K. Stalla, “Somatostatin analogs in ectopic corticotropin production,” Metabolism, vol. 45, pp. 129–131, 1996.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  11. N. Klomjit, D. J. Rowan, A. G. Kattah, I. Bancos, and S. J. Taler, “New-onset resistant hypertension in a newly diagnosed prostate cancer patient,” American Journal of Hypertension, vol. 32, no. 12, pp. 1214–1217, 2019.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  12. R. Nadal, M. Schweizer, O. N. Kryvenko, J. I. Epstein, and M. A. Eisenberger, “Small cell carcinoma of the prostate,” Nature Reviews Urology, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 213–219, 2014.View at: Publisher Site | Google Scholar
  13. F. A. Collichio, P. D. Woolf, and M. Brower, “Management of patients with small cell carcinoma and the syndrome of ectopic corticotropin secretion,” Cancer, vol. 73, no. 5, pp. 1361–1367, 1994.View at: Google Scholar

Copyright © 2022 Wanling Zeng and Joan Khoo. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Treatment for Rare Cancer May Help Cushing’s Patients

The cancer medicine bexarotene may hold promise for treating Cushing’s disease, a study suggests.

The study, “Targeting the TR4 nuclear receptor with antagonist bexarotene can suppress the proopiomelanocortin signalling in AtT‐20 cells,” was published in the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.

Cushing’s disease is caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland, leading this gland to produce too much adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Excess ACTH causes the adrenal glands to release too much of the stress hormone cortisol; abnormally high cortisol levels are primarily responsible for the symptoms of Cushing’s.

Typically, first-line treatment is surgical removal of the pituitary tumor. But surgery, while effective in the majority of cases, does not help all. Additional treatment with medications or radiation therapy (radiotherapy) works for some, but not others, and these treatments often have substantial side effects.

“Thus, the development of new drugs for CD [Cushing’s disease] treatment is extremely urgent especially for patients who have low tolerance for surgery and radiotherapy,” the researchers wrote.

Recent research has shown that a protein called testicular receptor 4 (TR4) helps to drive ACTH production in pituitary cancers. Thus, blocking the activity of TR4 could be therapeutic in Cushing’s disease.

Researchers conducted computer simulations to screen for compounds that could block TR4. This revealed bexarotene as a potential inhibitor. Further biochemical tests confirmed that bexarotene could bind to, and block the activity of, TR4.

Bexarotene is a type of medication called a retinoid. It is approved to treat cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, a rare cancer that affects the skin, and available under the brand name Targretin.

When pituitary cancer cells in dishes were treated with bexarotene, the cells’ growth was impaired, and apoptosis (a type of programmed cell death) was triggered. Bexarotene treatment also reduced the secretion of ACTH from these cells.

In mice with ACTH-secreting pituitary tumors, bexarotene’s use significantly reduced tumor size, and lowered levels of ACTH and cortisol. Cushing’s-like symptoms also eased; for example, bexarotene treatment reduced the accumulation of fat around the abdomen in these mice.

Additional cellular experiments suggested that bexarotene specifically works on TR4 by changing the location of the protein. Normally, TR4 is present in the nucleus — the cellular compartment that houses DNA — where it helps to control the production of ACTH.

But with bexarotene treatment, TR4 tended to go outside of the nucleus, leading to lower ACTH production. The researchers noted that other mechanisms may also be involved in the observed effects of bexarotene.

“In summary, our work demonstrates that bexarotene is a potential inhibitor for TR4. Importantly, bexarotene may represent a new drug candidate to treat CD,” the researchers concluded.

Scientists Discover Biological Reason Why Women Are More Likely to Develop Adrenal Disorders

Scientists have discovered a potential biological reason why women are more likely to develop adrenal disorders, including cancer. According to the researchers, the answer could lie in the increased turnover of hormone-producing cells found in the adrenal glands of females.

The adrenal gland is a hormone producing organ that sits on top of the kidneys. The outer part, or cortex, is responsible for the production of several hormones, including the stress-related hormone cortisol and the blood pressure controlling aldosterone. Adrenal cancer is relatively rare but occurs approximately three times more in women than in men. The cellular basis for this difference has not been investigated in detail but uncovering it might lead to sex-specific treatments and has huge implications for many areas of research.

Dr Andreas Schedl, from INSERM, France, who led the study said:

To our surprise we found that adrenal cells in female mice show a much more rapid turnover compared to males, which we could trace back to a different behaviour of adrenal stem cells between the two sexes. Furthermore, we could show that the observed differences are due to hormones that are produced by testes that suppress cell division, thus slowing down renewal in the male adrenal.”

The scientists studied the adrenal cortex of male and female adult mice and found that female mice replace their entire set of hormone-producing cells within 3 months, while it takes male mice an entire 9 months. Using different techniques to label cells within the adrenal cortex, they established that females not only have a higher proliferation rate of cells, but also recruit stem cells from a different part of the adrenal gland.

The research has wide reaching implications, as it demonstrates the basic mechanism underlying the increased turnover of cells within the adrenal gland, providing a possible explanation for the increased incidence of adrenal disorders in women.

Dr Schedl explained: “It is early days and many more experiments will need to be performed before our research can directly benefit patients. However, we believe that our study teaches a number of important lessons that are of immediate relevance to scientists, pharmacologists and clinicians.”

This research might lead to sex-specific treatment options for diseases like adrenal cancer and, according to Dr Schedl, could have implications on a far wider field of disorders: “Importantly, while our study concentrated on the adrenals, we are convinced that similar differences may also be found in other organ systems.”

Dr Helen Rippon, Chief Executive of the charity Worldwide Cancer Research, whose supporters helped fund the study, said: “Sex differences are not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about cancer research or treatments. But this study has shown that it is crucial to consider potential differences between male and female when trying to understand the basis of cancer biology. Most importantly, these findings could have implications for treatment options further down the line and highlight the importance of early-stage, discovery research. We are delighted to fund this kind of research, as we believe that these innovative approaches are ultimately going to lead to a world where no life is cut short by cancer.”

Worldwide Cancer Research, La Ligue Contre le Cancer and the ANR supported this research. The research was published in Cell Stem Cell.


Worldwide Cancer Research

Journal reference:

Grabek, A. et al. (2019) The Adult Adrenal Cortex Undergoes Rapid Tissue Renewal in a Sex-Specific MannerCell Stem


Metastatic Pituitary Carcinoma Successfully Treated with Radiation, Chemo.

A man with Cushing’s disease — caused by an adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH)-secreting pituitary adenoma — who later developed metastases in the central nervous system without Cushing’s recurrence, was successfully treated over eight years with radiation and chemotherapy, according to a case report.

The report, “Long-term survival following transformation of an adrenocorticotropic hormone secreting pituitary macroadenoma to a silent corticotroph pituitary carcinoma: Case report,” was published in the journal World Neurosurgery.

Pituitary carcinomas make up only 0.1-0.2% of all pituitary tumors and are characterized by a primary pituitary tumor that metastasizes into cranial, spinal, or systemic locations. Fewer than 200 cases have been reported in the literature.

Most of these carcinomas secrete hormones, with ACTH being the most common. Though the majority of ACTH-secreting carcinomas present with Cushing’s disease, about one-third do not show symptoms of the condition and have normal serum cortisol and ACTH levels. These are called silent corticotroph adenomas and are considered more aggressive.

A research team at the University of Alabama at Birmingham presented the case of a 51-year-old Caucasian man with ACTH-dependent Cushing’s disease. He had undergone an incomplete transsphenoidal (through the nose) resection of an ACTH-secreting pituitary macroadenoma – larger than 10 mm in size – and radiation therapy the year before.

At referral in August 1997, the patient had persistent high cortisol levels and partial hypopituitarism, or pituitary insufficiency. He exhibited Cushing’s symptoms, including facial reddening, moon facies, weight gain above the collarbone, “buffalo hump,” and abdominal stretch marks.

About two years later, the man was weaned off ketoconazole — a medication used to lower cortisol levels — and his cortisol levels had been effectively reduced. He also had no physical manifestations of Cushing’s apart from facial reddening.

In May 2010, the patient reported two episodes of partial seizures, describing two spells of right arm tingling, followed by impaired peripheral vision. Imaging showed a 2.1-by-1-cm mass with an associated cyst within the brain’s right posterior temporal lobe, as well as a 1.8-by-1.2-cm mass at the cervicomedullary junction, which is the region where the brainstem continues as the spinal cord. His right temporal cystic mass was then removed by craniotomy.

A histopathologic analysis was consistent with pituitary carcinoma. Cell morphology was generally similar to the primary pituitary tumor, but cell proliferation was higher. Physical exams showed no recurrence of Cushing’s disease and 24-hour free urinary cortisol was within the normal range.

His cervicomedullary metastasis was treated with radiation therapy in July 2010. He took the oral chemotherapy temozolomide until August 2011, and Avastin (bevacizumab, by Genentech) was administered from September 2010 to November 2012.

At present, the patient continues to undergo annual imaging and laboratory draws. He receives treatment with hydrocortisone, levothyroxine — synthetic thyroid hormone — and testosterone replacement with androgel.

His most recent exam showed no progression over eight years of a small residual right temporal cyst, a residual mass along the pituitary stalk — the connection between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland — and a small residual mass at the cervicomedullary junction. Lab results continue to show no Cushing’s recurrence.

“Our case is the first to document a patient who initially presented with an endocrinologically active ACTH secreting pituitary adenoma and Cushing’s disease who later developed cranial and spinal metastases without recurrence of Cushing’s disease and transformation to a silent corticotroph pituitary carcinoma,” the scientists wrote.

They added that the report is also the first documenting “8 years of progression-free survival in a patient with pituitary carcinoma treated with radiotherapy, [temozolomide] and bevacizumab.”

Adapted from

%d bloggers like this: