Simultaneous Pituitary and Adrenal Adenomas in a Patient with Non ACTH Dependent Cushing Syndrome

Highlights

Cushing syndrome (CS) is a rare disorder with a variety of underlying etiologies.

CS is expected to affect 0.2 to 5 people per million per year.

Adrenal-dependent CS is an uncommon variant of CS.

This study reports a rare occurrence of pituitary and adrenal adenoma with CS.

Abstract

Introduction

Cushing syndrome is a rare disorder with a variety of underlying etiologies, that can be exogenous or endogenous (adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-dependent or ACTH-independent). The current study aims to report a case of ACTH-independent Cushing syndrome with adrenal adenoma and nonfunctioning pituitary adenoma.

Case report

A 37–year–old female presented with amenorrhea for the last year, associated with weight gain. She had a moon face, buffalo hump, and central obesity. A 24-hour urine collection for cortisol was performed, revealing elevated cortisol. Cortisol level was non-suppressed after administering dexamethasone. MRI of the pituitary revealed a pituitary microadenoma, and the CT scan of the abdomen with adrenal protocol revealed a left adrenal adenoma.

Discussion

Early diagnosis may be postponed due to the variety of clinical presentations and the referral of patients to different subspecialists based on their dominant symptoms (gynecological, dermatological, cardiovascular, psychiatric); it is, therefore, critical to consider the entire clinical presentation for correct diagnosis.

Conclusion

Due to the diversity in the presentation of CS, an accurate clinical, physical and endocrine examination is always recommended.

Keywords

Cushing syndrome
Cushing’s disease
Adrenal adenoma
Pituitary adenoma
Urine free cortisol

1. Introduction

Cushing syndrome (CS) is a collection of clinical manifestations caused by an excess of glucocorticoids [1]. CS is a rare disorder with a variety of underlying etiologies that can be exogenous due to continuous corticosteroid therapy for any underlying inflammatory illness or endogenous due to either adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-dependent or ACTH-independent [2][3]. Cushing syndrome is expected to affect 0.2 to 5 people per million per year. Around 10% of such cases involve children [4][5]. ACTH-dependent glucocorticoid excess owing to pituitary adenoma accounts for the majority (60–70%) of endogenous CS, with primary adrenal causes accounting for only 20–30% and ectopic ACTH-secreting tumors accounting for the remaining 5–10% [6]. Adrenal-dependent CS is an uncommon variant of CS caused mostly by benign (90%) or malignant (8%) adrenal tumors or, less frequently, bilateral micronodular (1%) or macronodular (1%) adrenal hyperplasia [7].

The current study aims to report a case of ACTH-independent Cushing syndrome with adrenal adenoma and nonfunctioning pituitary adenoma. The report has been arranged in line with SCARE guidelines and includes a brief literature review [8].

2. Case report

2.1. Patient’s information

A 37–year–old female presented with amenorrhea for the last year, associated with weight gain. She denied having polyuria, polydipsia, headaches, visual changes, dizziness, dryness of the skin, cold intolerance, or constipation. She had no history of chronic disease and denied using steroids. She visited an internist, a general surgeon, and a gynecologist and was treated for hypothyroidism. She was put on Thyroxin 100 μg daily, and oral contraceptive pills were given for her menstrual problems. Last time, the patient was referred to an endocrinology clinic, and they reviewed the clinical and physical examinations.

2.2. Clinical examination

She had a moon face, buffalo hump, central obesity, pink striae over her abdomen, and proximal weakness of the upper limbs. After reviewing the history and clinical examination, CS was suspected.

2.3. Diagnostic assessment

Because the thyroid function test revealed low thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), free T3, and freeT4, the patient was sent for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the pituitary, which revealed a pituitary microadenoma (7 ∗ 6 ∗ 5) mm (Fig. 1). Since the patient was taking thyroxin and oral contraceptive pills, the investigations were postponed for another six weeks due to the contraceptive pills’ influence on the results of the hormonal assessment for CS. After six weeks of no medication, a 24-hour urinary free cortisol (UFC) was performed three times, revealing elevated cortisol levels (1238, 1100, and 1248) nmol (normal range, 100–400) nmol. A dexamethasone suppression test was done (after administering dexamethasone tab 1 mg at 11 p.m., serum cortisol was measured at 9 a.m.). The morning serum cortisol level was 620 nmol (non-suppressed), which normally should be less than 50 nmol. The ACTH level was below 1 pg/mL.

Fig. 1

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Fig. 1. Contrast enhanced T1W weighted MRI (coronal section) showing small 7 mm hypo-enhanced microadenoma (yellow arrow) in right side of pituitary gland with mild superior bulge.

Based on these findings, ACTH independent CS was suspected. The computerized tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen with adrenal protocol revealed a left adrenal adenoma (33 mm × 25 mm) without features of malignancy (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

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Fig. 2. Computed tomography scan of the abdomen with IV contrast, coronal section, showing 33 mm × 25 mm lobulated enhanced left adrenal tumor (yellow arrow), showing absolute washout on dynamic adrenal CT protocol, consistent with adrenal adenoma.

2.4. Therapeutic intervention

The patient was referred to the urologist clinic for left adrenalectomy after preparation for surgery and perioperative hormonal management. She underwent laparoscopic adrenalectomy and remained in the hospital for two days. The histopathology results supported the diagnosis of adrenal adenoma.

2.5. Follow-up

She was released home after two days on oral hydrocortisone 20 mg in the morning and 10 mg in the afternoon. After one month of follow-up, serum cortisol was 36 nmol, with the resolution of some features such as weight reduction (3 kg) and skin color (pink striae became white).

3. Discussion

Cushing’s syndrome is a serious and well-known medical condition that results from persistent exposure of the body to excessive glucocorticoids, either from endogenous or, most frequently, exogenous sources [9]. The average age of diagnosis is 41.4 years, with a female-to-male ratio of 3:1 [10]. ACTH-dependent CS accounts for almost 80% of endogenous CS, while ACTH-independent CS accounts for nearly 20% [10]. This potentially fatal condition is accompanied by several comorbidities, including hypertension, diabetes, coagulopathy, cardiovascular disease, infections, and fractures [11]. Exogenous CS, also known as iatrogenic CS, is more prevalent than endogenous CS and is caused by the injection of supraphysiologic glucocorticoid dosages [12]. ACTH-independent CS is induced by uncontrolled cortisol release from an adrenal gland lesion, most often an adenoma, adrenocortical cancer, or, in rare cases, ACTH-independent macronodular adrenal hyperplasia or primary pigmented nodular adrenal disease [13].

The majority of data suggests that early diagnosis is critical for reducing morbidity and mortality. Detection is based on clinical suspicion initially, followed by biochemical confirmation [14]. The clinical manifestation of CS varies depending on the severity and duration of glucocorticoid excess [14]. Some individuals may manifest varying symptoms and signs because of a rhythmic change in cortisol secretion, resulting in cyclical CS [15]. The classical symptoms of CS include weight gain, hirsutism, striae, plethora, hypertension, ecchymosis, lethargy, monthly irregularities, diminished libido, and proximal myopathy [16]. Neurobehavioral presentations include anxiety, sadness, mood swings, and memory loss [17]. Less commonly presented features include headaches, acne, edema, abdominal pain, backache, recurrent infection, female baldness, dorsal fat pad, frank diabetes, electrocardiographic abnormalities suggestive of cardiac hypertrophy, osteoporotic fractures, and cardiovascular disease from accelerated atherosclerosis [10]. The current case presented with amenorrhea, weight gain, moon face, buffalo hump, and skin discoloration of the abdomen.

Similar to the current case, early diagnosis may be postponed due to the variety of clinical presentations and the referral of patients to different subspecialists based on their dominant symptoms (gynecological, dermatological, cardiovascular, psychiatric); it is, therefore, critical to consider the entire clinical presentation for correct diagnosis [18]. Weight gain may be less apparent in children, but there is frequently an arrest in growth with a fall in height percentile and a delay in puberty [19].

The diagnosis and confirmation of the etiology can be difficult and time-consuming, requiring a variety of laboratory testing and imaging studies [20]. According to endocrine society guidelines, the initial assessment of CS must include one or more of the three following tests: 24-hour UFC measurement; evaluation of the diurnal variation of cortisol secretion by assessing the midnight serum or salivary cortisol level; and a low-dose dexamethasone suppression test, typically the 1 mg overnight test [21]. Although UFC has sufficient sensitivity and specificity, it does not function well in milder cases of Cushing’s syndrome [22]. In CS patients, the typical circadian rhythm of cortisol secretion is disrupted, and a high late-night cortisol serum level is the earliest and most sensitive diagnostic indicator of the condition [23]. In the current case, the UFC was elevated, and cortisol was unsuppressed after administration of dexamethasone.

All patients with CS should have a high-resolution pituitary MRI with a gadolinium-based contrast agent to prove the existence or absence of a pituitary lesion and to identify the source of ACTH between pituitary adenomas and ectopic lesions [24]. Adrenal CT scan is the imaging modality of choice for preoperatively localizing and subtyping adrenocortical lesions in ACTH-independent Cushing’s syndrome [9]. MRI of the pituitary gland of the current case showed a microadenoma and a CT scan of the adrenals showed left adrenal adenoma.

Surgical resection of the origin of the ACTH or glucocorticoid excess (pituitary adenoma, nonpituitary tumor-secreting ACTH, or adrenal tumor) is still the first-line treatment of all forms of CS because it leaves normal adjacent structures and results in prompt remission and inevitable recovery of regular adrenal function [12][25]. Laparoscopic (retroperitoneal or transperitoneal) adrenalectomy has become the gold standard technique for adrenal adenomas since it is associated with fewer postoperative morbidity, hospitalization, and expense when compared to open adrenalectomy [17]. In refractory cases, or when a patient is not a good candidate for surgery, cortisol-lowering medication may be employed [26]. The current case underwent left adrenalectomy.

Symptoms of CS, such as central obesity, muscular wasting or weakness, acne, hirsutism, and purple striae generally improve first and may subside gradually over a few months or even a year; nevertheless, these symptoms may remain in 10–30% of patients [27]. Glucocorticoid replacement is essential after adrenal-sparing curative surgery until the pituitary-adrenal function returns, which might take up to two years, especially if adrenal adenomas have been resected [25]. Chronic glucocorticoid excess causes lots of new co-morbidities, lowering the quality of life and increasing mortality. The most common causes of mortality in CS are cardiovascular disease and infections [28]. After one month of follow-up, serum cortisol was 36 nmol, and several features, such as weight loss (3 kg) and skin color, were resolved (pink striae became white).

In conclusion, the coexistence of adrenal adenoma and pituitary adenoma with CS is a rare possibility. Due to the diversity in the presentation of CS, an accurate clinical, physical and endocrine examination is always recommended. Laparoscopic adrenalectomy is the gold standard for treating adrenal adenoma.

Consent

Written informed consent was obtained from the patient’s family for publication of this case report and accompanying images. A copy of the written consent is available for review by the Editor-in-Chief of this journal on request.

Provenance and peer review

Not commissioned, externally peer-reviewed.

Ethical approval

Approval is not necessary for case report (till 3 cases in single report) in our locality.

The family gave consent for the publication of the report.

Funding

None.

Guarantor

Fahmi Hussein Kakamad, Fahmi.hussein@univsul.edu.iq.

Research registration number

Not applicable.

CRediT authorship contribution statement

Abdulwahid M. Salh: major contribution of the idea, literature review, final approval of the manuscript.

Rawa Bapir: Surgeon performing the operation, final approval of the manuscript.

Fahmi H. Kakamad: Writing the manuscript, literature review, final approval of the manuscript.

Soran H. Tahir, Fattah H. Fattah, Aras Gh. Mahmood, Rawezh Q. Salih, Shaho F. Ahmed: literature review, final approval of the manuscript.

Declaration of competing interest

None to be declared.

References

Possible Good News! Effects of Tubastatin A on Adrenocorticotropic Hormone Synthesis and Proliferation of Att-20 Corticotroph Tumor Cells

  • Rie HagiwaraDepartment of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Hirosaki University Graduate School of Medicine, Hirosaki 036-8562, Japan
  • Kazunori KageyamaDepartment of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Hirosaki University Graduate School of Medicine, Hirosaki 036-8562, Japan
  • Yasumasa IwasakiSuzuka University of Medical Science, Suzuka 510-0293, Japan
  • Kanako NiiokaDepartment of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Hirosaki University Graduate School of Medicine, Hirosaki 036-8562, Japan
  • Makoto DaimonDepartment of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Hirosaki University Graduate School of Medicine, Hirosaki 036-8562, Japan
Abstract

Cushing’s disease is an endocrine disorder characterized by hypercortisolism, mainly caused by autonomous production of ACTH from pituitary adenomas. Autonomous ACTH secretion results in excess cortisol production from the adrenal glands, and corticotroph adenoma cells disrupt the normal cortisol feedback mechanism. Pan-histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors inhibit cell proliferation and ACTH production in AtT-20 corticotroph tumor cells. A selective HDAC6 inhibitor has been known to exert antitumor effects and reduce adverse effects related to the inhibition of other HDACs. The current study demonstrated that the potent and selective HDAC6 inhibitor tubastatin A has inhibitory effects on proopiomelanocortin (Pomc) and pituitary tumor-transforming gene 1 (Pttg1) mRNA expression, involved in cell proliferation. The phosphorylated Akt/Akt protein levels were increased after treatment with tubastatin A. Therefore, the proliferation of corticotroph cells may be regulated through the Akt-Pttg1 pathway. Dexamethasone treatment also decreased the Pomc mRNA level. Combined tubastatin A and dexamethasone treatment showed additive effects on the Pomc mRNA level. Thus, tubastatin A may have applications in the treatment of Cushing’s disease.

Access the PDF at https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/endocrj/advpub/0/advpub_EJ21-0778/_pdf/-char/en

 

Covid-19 and Cushing’s Disease in a Patient with ACTH-secreting Pituitary Carcinoma

Abstract

Summary

The pandemic caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 is of an unprecedented magnitude and has made it challenging to properly treat patients with urgent or rare endocrine disorders. Little is known about the risk of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in patients with rare endocrine malignancies, such as pituitary carcinoma. We describe the case of a 43-year-old patient with adrenocorticotrophic hormone-secreting pituitary carcinoma who developed a severe COVID-19 infection. He had stabilized Cushing’s disease after multiple lines of treatment and was currently receiving maintenance immunotherapy with nivolumab (240 mg every 2 weeks) and steroidogenesis inhibition with ketoconazole (800 mg daily). On admission, he was urgently intubated for respiratory exhaustion. Supplementation of corticosteroid requirements consisted of high-dose dexamethasone, in analogy with the RECOVERY trial, followed by the reintroduction of ketoconazole under the coverage of a hydrocortisone stress regimen, which was continued at a dose depending on the current level of stress. He had a prolonged and complicated stay at the intensive care unit but was eventually discharged and able to continue his rehabilitation. The case points out that multiple risk factors for severe COVID-19 are present in patients with Cushing’s syndrome. ‘Block-replacement’ therapy with suppression of endogenous steroidogenesis and supplementation of corticosteroid requirements might be preferred in this patient population.

Learning points

  • Comorbidities for severe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are frequently present in patients with Cushing’s syndrome.
  • ‘Block-replacement’ with suppression of endogenous steroidogenesis and supplementation of corticosteroid requirements might be preferred to reduce the need for biochemical monitoring and avoid adrenal insufficiency.
  • The optimal corticosteroid dose/choice for COVID-19 is unclear, especially in patients with endogenous glucocorticoid excess.
  • First-line surgery vs initial disease control with steroidogenesis inhibitors for Cushing’s disease should be discussed depending on the current healthcare situation.

Background

The pandemic caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has had a significant impact on the health care systems to date. The clinical presentation of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is diverse, ranging from asymptomatic illness to respiratory failure requiring admission to the intensive care unit (ICU). Risk factors for severe course include old age, male gender, comorbidities such as arterial hypertension, diabetes mellitus, chronic lung-, heart-, liver- and kidney disease, malignancy, immunodeficiency and pregnancy (1). Little is known about the risk of COVID-19 in patients with rare endocrine malignancies, such as pituitary carcinoma.

Case presentation

This case concerns a 43-year-old man with adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH)-secreting pituitary carcinoma (with cerebellar and cervical drop metastases) with a severe COVID-19 infection. He had previously received multiple treatment modalities including surgery, radiotherapy, ketoconazole, pasireotide, cabergoline, bilateral (subtotal) adrenalectomy and temozolomide chemotherapy as described elsewhere (2). His most recent therapy was a combination of immune checkpoint inhibitors consisting of ipilimumab (3 mg/kg) and nivolumab (1 mg/kg) (anti-CTLA-4 and anti-PD-1, respectively) every 3 weeks for four cycles, after which maintenance therapy with nivolumab (240 mg) every 2 weeks was continued. Residual endogenous cortisol production was inhibited with ketoconazole 800 mg daily. He had stabilized disease with a decrease in plasma ACTH, urinary free cortisol and stable radiological findings (2). Surgical resection of the left adrenal remnant was planned but was not carried out due to the development of a COVID-19 infection.

In March 2021, he consulted our emergency department for severe respiratory complaints. He had been suffering from upper respiratory tract symptoms for one week, with progressive dyspnoea in the last three days. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 the day before admission. On examination, his O2 saturation was 72%, with tachypnoea (40/min) and bilateral pulmonary crepitations. His temperature was 37.2°C, blood pressure 124/86 mmHg and pulse rate 112 bpm. High-flow oxygen therapy was initiated but yielded insufficient improvement (O2 saturation of 89% and tachypnoea 35/min). He was urgently intubated for respiratory exhaustion.

Investigation

Initial investigations showed type 1 respiratory insufficiency with PaO2 of 52.5 mmHg (normal 75–90), PaCO2 of 33.0 mmHg (normal 36–44), pH of 7.47 (normal 7.35–7.45) and a P/F ratio of 65.7 (normal >300). His inflammatory parameters were elevated with C-reactive protein level of 275.7 mg/L (normal <5·0) and white blood cell count of 7.1 × 10⁹ per L with 72.3% neutrophils. His most recent morning plasma ACTH-cortisol level (measured using the Elecsys electrochemiluminescence immunoassays on a Cobas 8000 immunoanalyzer [Roche Diagnostics]) before his admission was 213 ng/L (normal 7.2–63) and 195 µg/L (normal 62–180) respectively, while a repeat measurement 3 weeks after his admission demonstrated increased cortisol levels of 547 µg/L (possibly iatrogenic due to treatment with high-dose hydrocortisone) and a decreased ACTH of 130 ng/L.

Treatment

On admission, he was started on high-dose dexamethasone therapy for 10 days together with broad-spectrum antibiotics for positive sputum cultures containing Serratia, methicillin-susceptible Staphylococcus aureus and Haemophilus influenzae. Thromboprophylaxis with an intermediate dose of low molecular weight heparin (tinzaparin 14 000 units daily for a body weight of 119 kg) was initiated. A ‘block-replacement’ regimen was adopted with the continuation of ketoconazole (restarted on day 11) in view of his endocrine treatment and the supplementation of hydrocortisone at a dose depending on the current level of stress. The consecutive daily dose of hydrocortisone and ketoconazole is shown in Fig. 1.

Figure 1View Full Size
Figure 1
‘Block-replacement’ therapy with ketoconazole and hydrocortisone/dexamethasone. Dexamethasone 10 mg daily was initially started as COVID-19 treatment, followed by hydrocortisone at a dose consistent with current levels of stress. Ketoconazole was restarted on day 11 and titrated to a dose of 800 mg daily to suppress endogenous glucocorticoid production.

Citation: Endocrinology, Diabetes & Metabolism Case Reports 2022, 1; 10.1530/EDM-21-0182

Outcome and follow-up

He developed multiple organ involvement, including metabolic acidosis, acute renal failure requiring continuous venovenous hemofiltration, acute coronary syndrome type 2, septic thrombophlebitis of the right jugular vein, and critical illness polyneuropathy. He was readmitted twice to the ICU, for ventilator-associated pneumonia and central line-associated bloodstream infection respectively. He eventually recovered and was discharged from the hospital to continue his rehabilitation.

Discussion

We describe the case of a patient with severe COVID-19 infection with active Cushing’s disease due to pituitary carcinoma, who was treated with high-dose dexamethasone followed by ‘block-replacement’ therapy with hydrocortisone in combination with off-label use of ketoconazole as a steroidogenesis inhibitor. His hospitalization was prolonged by multiple readmissions to the ICU for infectious causes. Our case illustrates the presence of multiple comorbidities for a severe and complicated course of COVID-19 in a patient with active Cushing’s disease.

Dexamethasone was initially chosen as the preferred corticosteroid therapy, in analogy with the RECOVERY trial, in which dexamethasone at a dose of 6mg once daily (oral or i.v.) resulted in lower 28-day mortality in hospitalized patients with COVID-19 requiring oxygen therapy or invasive mechanical ventilation (3). However, the optimal dose/choice of corticosteroid therapy is unclear, especially in a patient population with pre-existing hypercortisolaemia. A similar survival benefit for hydrocortisone compared to dexamethasone has yet to be convincingly demonstrated. This may be explained by differences in anti-inflammatory activity but could also be due to the fact that recent studies with hydrocortisone were stopped early and were underpowered (45).

Multiple risk factors for a complicated course of COVID-19 are present in patients with Cushing’s syndrome and might increase morbidity and mortality (67). These include a history of obesity, arterial hypertension and impaired glucose metabolism. Prevention and treatment of these pre-existing comorbidities are essential.

Patients with Cushing’s syndrome also have an increased thromboembolic risk, which is further accentuated by the development of severe COVID-19 infection (67). Thromboprophylaxis with low molecular weight heparin is associated with lower mortality in COVID-19 patients with high sepsis‐induced coagulopathy score or high D-dimer levels (8) and is presently widely used in the treatment of severe COVID-19 disease (9). Subsequently, this treatment is indicated in hospitalized COVID-19 patients with Cushing’s syndrome. It is unclear whether therapeutic anticoagulation dosing could provide additional benefits (67). An algorithm based on the International Society on Thrombosis and Hemostasis-Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation score was proposed to evaluate the ideal anticoagulation therapy in severe/critical COVID-19 patients, with an indication for therapeutic low molecular weight heparin dose at a score ≥5 (9).

Furthermore, the chronic cortisol excess induces suppression of the innate and adaptive immune response. Patients with Cushing’s syndrome, especially when severe and active, should be considered immunocompromised and have increased susceptibility for viral and other (hospital-acquired) infections. Prophylaxis for Pneumocystis jirovecii with trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole should therefore be considered (67).

Additionally, there is a particular link between the pathophysiology of COVID-19 and Cushing’s syndrome. The SARS-CoV-2 virus (as well as other coronaviruses) enter human cells by binding the ACE2 receptor. The transmembrane serine protease 2 (TMPRSS2), expressed by endothelial cells, is additionally required for the priming of the spike-protein of SARS-CoV-2, leading to viral entry. TMPRSS2 was studied in prostate cancer and found to be regulated by androgen signalling. Consequently, the androgen excess frequently associated with Cushing’s syndrome might be an additional risk factor for contracting COVID-19 via higher TMPRSS2 expression (10), especially in women, in whom the effect of excess androgen would be more noticeable compared to male patients with Cushing’s syndrome.

Treating Cushing’s syndrome with a ‘block-replacement’ approach, with suppression of endogenous steroidogenesis and supplementation of corticosteroid requirements, is an approach that should be considered, especially in severe or cyclic disease. The use of this method might decrease the need for monitoring and reduce the occurrence of adrenal insufficiency (7). Our patient was on treatment with ketoconazole, which was interrupted at initial presentation and then restarted under the coverage of a hydrocortisone stress regimen. Ketoconazole was chosen because of its availability. Advantages of ketoconazole over metyrapone include its antifungal activity with the potential for prevention of invasive pulmonary fungal infections, as well as its antiandrogen action (especially in female patients) and subsequent inhibition of TMPRSS2 expression (10). Regular monitoring of the liver function (every month for the first 3 months, at therapy initiation or dose increase) is necessary. Caution is needed due to its inhibition of multiple cytochrome P450 enzymes (including CYP3A4) and subsequently greater risk of drug-drug interactions vs metyrapone (710). Another disadvantage of ketoconazole is the need for oral administration. In our patient, ketoconazole was delivered through a nasogastric tube. i.v. etomidate is an alternative in case of an unavailable enteral route.

Finally, as a general point, the first-line treatment of a patient with a novel diagnosis of Cushing’s disease is transsphenoidal surgery. Recent endocrine recommendations pointed out the possibility of initial disease control with steroidogenesis inhibitors in patients without an indication for urgent intervention during a high prevalence of COVID-19 (7). This would allow the optimalization of metabolic parameters; emphasizing that the short-to mid-term prognosis is related to the cortisol excess and not its cause. Surgery could then be postponed until the health situation allows for safe elective surgery (7). This decision depends of course on the evolution of COVID-19 and the healthcare system in each country and should be closely monitored by policymakers and physicians.

Declaration of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest that could be perceived as prejudicing the impartiality of the research reported.

Funding

This work did not receive any specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sector.

Patient consent

Written informed consent for publication of their clinical details and/or clinical images was obtained from the patient.

Author contribution statement

J M K de Filette is an endocrinologist-in-training and was the main author. All authors were involved in the clinical care of the patient. All authors contributed to the reviewing and editing process and approved the final version of the manuscript.

References

Dynamic And Invasive Testing in Cushing’s Disease

Abstract

Purpose

Dynamic testing represents the mainstay in the differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent Cushing’s syndrome. However, in case of undetectable or detectable lesion < 6 mm on MRI, bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling (BIPSS) is suggested by current guidelines. Aim of this study was to analyze the performance of CRH, desmopressin and high-dose dexamethasone suppression test (HDDST) in the differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent Cushing’s syndrome as well as the impact of invasive and noninvasive tests on surgical outcome in patients affected by Cushing’s disease (CD).

Methods

Retrospective analysis on 148 patients with CD and 26 patients with ectopic ACTH syndrome.

Results

Among CD patients, negative MRI/lesion < 6 mm was detected in 97 patients (Group A); 29 had a 6–10 mm lesion (Group B) and 22 a macroadenoma (Group C). A positive response to CRH test, HDSST and desmopressin test was recorded in 89.4%, 91·4% and 70.1% of cases, respectively. Concordant positive response to both CRH/HDDST and CRH/desmopressin tests showed a positive predictive value of 100% for the diagnosis of CD. Among Group A patients with concordant CRH test and HDDST, no difference in surgical outcome was found between patients who performed BIPSS and those who did not (66.6% vs 70.4%, p = 0.78).

Conclusions

CRH, desmopressin test and HDDST have high accuracy in the differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent CS. In patients with microadenoma < 6 mm or non-visible lesion, a concordant positive response to noninvasive tests seems sufficient to diagnose CD, irrespective of MRI finding. In these patients, BIPSS should be reserved to discordant tests.

Introduction

Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is a rare and potentially fatal condition due to chronic exposure to cortisol. After excluding exogenous glucococorticoid assumption from any route, the diagnosis is based on clinical suspicion and further confirmed with appropriate testing as suggested by Endocrine Society Guidelines [urinary free cortisol (UFC), late night serum/salivary cortisol and 1 mg dexamethasone suppression test] [1]. Once the diagnosis of endogenous hypercortisolism is confirmed, the measurement of morning ACTH levels allows to discriminate ACTH-dependent from ACTH-independent CS that originates from primary adrenal disorders. Among ACTH-dependent CS, the most common form is caused by an ACTH-secreting pituitary tumor, a condition named Cushing’s disease (CD), accounting for about 80% of all cases, whereas the rest is due to an ectopic source (EAS); even though ACTH levels are usually higher in EAS than in CD, there is a significant overlap between these two conditions, thus further diagnostic procedures are needed [1]. Desmopressin (DDAVP) stimulatory test is helpful in suggesting risk of recurrence in the post-neurosurgical follow-up, but it seems to have a limited diagnostic utility in the differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent CS due to the expression of vasopressin receptors in both CD and EAS [2]. Conversely, high-dose dexamethasone suppression test (HDDST) and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) test have been widely used for this purpose and represent the mainstay in the differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent CS forms [3,4,5,6]. Despite their satisfactory accuracy, there is no consensus on how to interpret their results [7]. Previous studies found that the presence of concordant clear-cut response to both HDDST and CRH test is able to exclude the diagnosis of EAS, irrespective of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) finding [89]. Even though MRI with intravenous gadolinium administration is certainly useful for individuation of the pituitary tumor, it results in little help in about 30% of cases due to tiny dimensions, localization and characteristics of the ACTH-secreting pituitary adenomas [10]. Conversely, radiological studies may sometimes disclose abnormalities with no functional significance, the so-called “pituitary incidentalomas”, that have been found in about 10% of healthy individuals [11], as in up to 38% of patients with EAS [12]. However, it is noteworthy that the finding of a pituitary incidentalomas larger than 6 mm in patients with EAS is usually very rare [13]. The presence of a microadenoma is therefore not enough for hypercortisolism to be labeled as pituitary-dependent and the role of hormonal tests is crucial for a correct diagnosis. When discordant results to dynamic tests and/or when pituitary MRI shows a lesion < 6 mm, bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling (BIPSS) is still recommended as the gold-standard procedure to achieve correct differential diagnosis due to its high sensitivity and specificity [7]. However, even BIPSS is not always fully reliable; false negative results are indeed possible in case of anatomical variations of the venous drainage from the cavernous sinuses to the jugular veins or when BIPSS is performed in a low-normal cortisolemic phase, as might happen in cyclic CS or during treatment with cortisol-lowering medications [14]. Furthermore, BIPSS requires hospitalization, is time- and cost-consuming and in few instances might lead to severe complications [1516]. Given the fact that BIPSS is not 100% accurate, has poor reliability to suggest intrapituitary localization/lateralization and has some drawbacks [17], we collected clinical, biochemical and neuroradiological data of a large series of CD patients as well as biochemical and neuroradiological data of a group of EAS patients with the following aims: (i) to describe the responsiveness to dynamic testing (CRH test, DDAVP test and HDDST) and its performance in the differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent Cushing’s syndrome in possible different scenarios given by MRI finding; (ii) to assess whether the decision of BIPSS execution can affect surgical outcome of patients affected by Cushing’s disease.

Patients and methods

We performed a retrospective analysis on 148 patients (F/M 113/35, mean age 42.4 ± 14.2 years) affected by CD followed at 2 tertiary care centers in Italy between 2000 and 2017 [Endocrinology Unit, Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico of Milan (62 patients); Endocrinology Unit, Department of Medicine-DIMED, University of Padova (86 patients)].

The diagnosis of hypercortisolism was performed on the basis of typical clinical features in the presence of at least two of the following abnormal tests: high 24-h UFC levels, loss of circadian rhythm in plasma/salivary cortisol and lack of cortisol suppression after 1 mg of dexamethasone overnight [1]. The diagnosis of ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism was confirmed in case of detectable baseline ACTH plasma levels (> 20 ng/L) [18]. Pituitary MRI (magnet strength ranging from 1.5 to 3.0 TESLA over the study period) with gadolinium was performed in all patients and reviewed by experienced neuroradiologists. Differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism was established through: (i) CRH test (positive response: ACTH and/or cortisol plasma levels increase by more than 50% and/or 20%, respectively) [1218,19,20]; (ii) high-dose dexamethasone suppression test (HDDST) (positive response: serum cortisol levels reduction to a value of < 50% of the basal level) [19]; (iii) DDAVP test (positive response: increase of both ACTH and cortisol greater than 30% and 20%, respectively) [2122].

For CRH and DDAVP tests, all patients were evaluated after an overnight fast; blood samples for ACTH and cortisol measurements were collected − 15, 0, 15, 30, 45, 60, 90 and 120 min after intravenous bolus injection of human CRH 100 µg or DDAVP 10 µg, respectively.

For HDDST, dexamethasone 8 mg was administered orally at 23.00 h and serum cortisol levels were measured between 8.00 and 9.00 a.m. on the next morning.

The decision whether to perform bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling (BIPSS) was guided by clinical judgement considering neuroradiological and biochemical findings. After catheter placement, ACTH was measured simultaneously in a blood sample obtained from each petrosal sinus and from a peripheral vein before and 1, 3, 5, and 10 min after the injection of 1 µg/Kg of CRH.

An inferior petrosal sinus to periphery ratio (IPS:P) ≥ 2 at baseline or ≥ 3 after CRH administration was considered as positive response [23]. All patients included in this study underwent transsphenoidal surgery (TSS) performed by neurosurgeons with recognized expertise in the management of pituitary diseases.

The pituitary origin of ACTH secretion was then confirmed by immediate (serum cortisol < 138 nmol/L within 7 days following TSS) and/or sustained biochemical remission [hypoadrenalism (morning serum cortisol < 138 nmol/L or lack of cortisol response to Synacthen stimulation test considering a cut-off of 500 nmol/L) for at least 6 months] after TSS and/or histological examination (defined as positive immunostaining for ACTH on the adenomatous tissue).

Finally, data describing biochemical responses to CRH test, DDAVP test and HDDST and pituitary MRI in a group of 26 patients (14 of which were presented in a previous publication) [9] with histologically confirmed ectopic ACTH syndrome (EAS) were also collected.

Statistical analysis

Data are shown using mean ± standard deviation for normally distributed continuous variables or median and interquartile range (IQR) for non-Gaussian data and proportion for categorical parameters. Categorical data were analyzed using the χ2 test or the Fisher exact test if the expected value was < 5. Continuous parameters with normal distribution were compared using the t test and non-Gaussian data using the non-parametric test of Mann Whitney. The relation between two or more variable was assessed through logistic regression in case of binary dependent variable and linear regression in case of continuous dependent variable. Sensitivity (SE), specificity (SP), positive predictive value (PPV) and negative predictive value (NPV) were calculated with 95% confidence intervals (CI) using the exact binomial method. All statistical analyses were performed using SPSS, version 25 (IBM, Cary, NC, USA).

Results

Neuroradiological findings

Patients with CD were divided into three groups on the basis of MRI results; group A included 97 patients (65.5%) with negative imaging (n = 40, 27% of total) or with a pituitary lesion < 6 mm (n = 57 patients, 38.5%); group B those with visible pituitary adenoma sized between 6 and 10 mm (29 subjects, 19.6%), while group C accounted for patients with macroadenoma (22 patients, 14.9%) (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

figure1

Different groups of patients according to MRI findings

Among patients with EAS, seven had a microadenoma < 6 mm, while pituitary imaging was negative in 19.

Biochemical characteristics at baseline

Demographic, basal and dynamic biochemical characteristics and remission rates of three groups of patients affected by CD are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1 Demographic, basal and dynamic biochemical characteristics and remission rates of three groups of patients

Basal levels of cortisol, ACTH and UFC were evaluated for each group. Because of different assay methods performed during time, we preferred to use relative UFC (UFC/upper normal limit ratio). Patients of Group C showed higher basal ACTH levels compared to patients with negative MRI imaging or microadenomas (Group A + B) [90(54.5–113.5) vs 44.6(33.7–65.6), p < 0.001), without difference between Group A and Group B. No difference in basal cortisol and relative UFC levels was found between groups.

Late night salivary cortisol levels were evaluated in 73 patients (47 of Group A, 13 of Group B and C) without any difference between groups.

Suppression test

Overall, a positive response to HDDST was observed in 91.4% of cases of CD. The rate of responders to HDDST was similar between negative MRI/microadenomas (Group A + B) and macroadenomas (respectively 92.6% vs 83.3%, p = 0.18) and no differences were found in cortisol levels and percentage of cortisol reduction after HDDST among the three different groups of patients (Table 1).

Six out of 26 patients affected by EAS were responsive to HDDST (23.1%). HDDST had a 91% SE, 77% SP, 95% PPV and 62% NPV to diagnose Cushing’s disease (Table 2).

Table 2 Diagnostic performance of positive response to CRH test, HDDST and their combination for the correct identification of Cushing’s disease

Dynamic tests

Overall, CRH test was positive in 89.4% of CD subjects. The response rate was significantly higher in patients with negative MRI/microadenomas (Group A + B) with respect to those with macroadenomas (91.7% vs 75%, p = 0.04), without difference between Group A and Group B. Likewise, negative MRI/microadenomas showed a higher response in terms of ACTH [140.5 (71.9–284.9) vs 82 (26.4–190.9) p = 0.02] and cortisol percentage increase [61.8 (30.7–92.8) vs 36.8 (15.6–63.1), p = 0.03].

As far as DDAVP is concerned, a positive response was recorded in 70.1% of the whole cohort. In this case, unlike CRH test, the response rate was significantly higher in patients with macroadenomas than in those with negative MRI/microadenomas (90% vs 66.3%, p = 0.03). However, no differences between negative MRI/microadenomas and macroadenomas in terms of percentage increase of ACTH and cortisol were found.

Concordance of positive responses between CRH test and HDDST was observed in 81.5% of all patients (82.4% in Group A, 88.4% in Group B and 66.6% of Group C) without any difference between groups. In four cases, a negative response to both tests was recorded; all these patients had a macroadenoma with a minimum diameter of 20 mm.

Concordant positive responses to CRH and DDAVP tests were observed in 62.6% of patients (62.9% in Group A, 56.5% in Group B and 68.4% in Group C, p = NS between groups). In Group A, the concordance rate between CRH and DDAVP was significantly lower than that observed between CRH test and HDDST (62.9% vs 81.5%, p = 0.035). Additionally, six patients (four of Group A, one of Group B and one of Group C) showed a negative response to both tests.

With regards to EAS, one patient had a positive response to CRH test and six patients to HDDST, respectively. Data regarding DDAVP test were available in 22 out of 26 patients: in this subgroup, a false positive response was observed in 11 patients. However, no patient showed a concordant positive response to CRH test and HDDST or to CRH test and DDAVP test. Conversely, two patients responded to both HDDST and DDAVP test. Although it is beyond the aim of this paper, our data confirm previous studies reporting a higher sensitivity of CRH in respect to HDDST and DDAVP test in this setting [24,25,26].

CRH test showed a SE of 89%, SP of 96%, PPV of 99% and NPV of 62% for the diagnosis of CD (Table 2). The combination of the concordant positive responses to CRH test and HDDST performed better than single tests, reaching a 100% SP and PPV irrespective of pituitary MRI.

Considering only the patients with negative imaging or a pituitary lesion < 6 mm, the SE, SP, PPV and NPV of combined positive responses were 82%, 100%, 100% and 62%, respectively (Table 2). On the other hand, combined negative responses in this subgroup of patients showed a SP and PPV of 100% for the diagnosis of EAS.

Similarly, a positive response to both CRH test and DDAVP test reached a SP and PPV of 100% for the diagnosis of CD (Table 3).

Table 3 Diagnostic performance of positive response to DDAVP test or to the combination DDAVP/CRH and DDAVP/HDDST for the correct identification of Cushing’s disease

Bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling in CD

BIPSS was performed in 29/97 patients of Group A and 1/29 patient of Group B. In particular, 20 of 29 patients of Group A had a negative MRI. In four out of these patients, CRH and HDDST were discordant (two negative results for each test) and BIPSS confirmed a pituitary origin of CS. In the other 16 cases, a positive response to both tests was observed: in 15 cases BIPSS confirmed the diagnosis of CD, while a central/periphery ratio of 2.91 after CRH administration was recorded in one case. The latter patient underwent TSS and CD was then confirmed by immediate and long-term remission of disease. Notably, no patient of Group A presented a negative response to both CRH test and HDDST, while four patients presented a combined negative response to CRH and DDAVP tests.

In the remaining nine patients of Group A, MRI showed a visible microadenoma < 6 mm and BIPSS confirmed the diagnosis of CD both in concordant (n = 6) and discordant (n = 3) patients.

BIPSS was not consistent with a pituitary origin in a patient of Group B with discordant tests. However, as her pretest probability of having CD was high (she was a young female without any suggestive features of ectopic CS and no lesion at thoracoabdominal computed tomography), also in this case the patient underwent TSS and both short and long-term remission confirmed the diagnosis of CD.

No complications were observed in 29/30 patients after BIPSS. One patient died about 24 h after the procedure because of cardiac rupture. Since autopsy revealed a left ventricular free-wall rupture after asymptomatic acute myocardial infarction and cortisol related myopathy, this event was considered as unlikely related to BIPSS.

Remission rates after surgery and role of BIPSS in CD patients with inconclusive neuroradiological imaging

Overall, surgical remission was achieved in 107/148 (72.3%) patients. No difference between groups was found, also considering all patients with negative MRI or microadenomas (Group A + B) with respect to those with macroadenomas (Group C) (73.8% vs 63.6%, p = 0.31).

Finally, when considering patients of Group A with concordant positive responses to HDDST and CRH test (n = 75), no difference in surgical outcome was found between patients who performed BIPSS and those who did not [respectively, 14/21 (66.6%) vs 38/54 (70.4%), p = 0.78] (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

figure2

Remission rate in patients of Group A with concordant positive tests

Discussion

Differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent CS is challenging and to date a single best approach in the diagnostic work-up of these patients does not exist.

Whereas the usefulness of stimulatory and suppression tests is widely accepted, their role to the light of positive MRI (pituitary adenoma < or > 6 mm) or negative findings is still a matter of debate. In the latter case, although BIPSS still represents the gold-standard procedure for differential diagnosis regardless the results of dynamic tests [718], different clinical approaches and opinions are reported in the literature.

In a recent opinion statement by members of the Italian Society of Endocrinology, Italian Society of Neurosurgery and Italian Society of Neuroradiology that summarizes different strategies adopted in the prescription of BIPSS [27], the authors report two studies in which BIPSS did not show any influence on neurosurgical remission rates. In the first one, Bochicchio and coll. retrospectively analyzed data from 668 patients affected by CD and described that in 98 subjects who underwent BIPSS, surgical failure was similar to patients who did not [28]; however, in this cohort CRH and TRH tests but not HDDST, were performed and selection criteria for BIPSS were not clearly reported. In the second one, Jehle and coll. performed a retrospective analysis of 193 patients with ACTH-dependent CS [29]; also in this case, BIPSS did not affect remission rate after TSS as far as recurrence and long-term remission rates. The procedure was reserved to patients with equivocal scan and/or biochemical tests; however, biochemical evaluation consisted of ACTH and UFC levels, while CRH test was not performed and data about HDDST were lacking in all but six patients.

In a subsequent review about the role of BIPSS in CS, Zampetti et al. [30] suggested that, on the basis of authors’ experience, BIPSS should not be performed in patients with positive response to CRH test (defined as increase > 50% in ACTH and > 30% in cortisol), particularly if a consistent suppression to HDDST is present, independently of MRI findings. This opinion was finally remarked by Losa et al. [14] which pointed out CRH test as the main factor in providing indication to BIPSS.

In this area of controversy, we performed a retrospective analysis on 148 patients with CD and 26 patients with EAS aiming to evaluate the role non-invasive tests in the diagnostic work-up, with secondary focus on the need of BIPSS in CD patients with inconclusive neuroradiological examination. In all 148 patients of our cohort, the diagnosis of CD was confirmed by biochemical remission after TSS, histology and/or > 6 months post-surgical hypoadrenalism.

In agreement with previous data, our results confirm that CRH test and HDDST have high accuracy in differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent CS [8927]. As a whole, a positive response was observed in 89.4% and 91.4% of patients with CD, and in 3.8% and 23.1% of patients with EAS, respectively. More importantly, the combination of concordant positive responses to CRH test and HDDST reaches 100% specificity and PPV, thus allowing the diagnosis of CD irrespective of MRI findings. Otherwise, a single-test approach is not able to reach a specificity of 100%. The same performance is maintained in the subgroup of patients with negative MRI or with a microadenoma < 6 mm. Furthermore, in this subgroup, a negative response to both CRH test and HDDST is sufficient to make the diagnosis of EAS.

Interestingly, in CD patients, the response rate to CRH test, as far as ACTH and cortisol percentage increase, were significantly higher in patients with microadenomas or negative imaging in respect to those with macroadenomas. A similar observation was recently reported in a group of 149 CD patients where macroadenomas tended to show a lower increase of ACTH after CRH compared to microadenomas [9]. As a negative correlation between baseline secretion and ACTH and cortisol responses to CRH in CD patients has been described [31], suggesting in this context a different degree of negative feedback impairment at the pituitary level, the finding of higher baseline ACTH levels in our patients may represent the most likely explanation for this observation.

Accordingly, the highest rate of false negative responses to dynamic tests were observed in patients with macroadenomas, in which a false negative result to both CRH and HDDST was recorded in four cases; nevertheless, in this condition BIPSS is already overlooked due to the low pretest probability of the co-existence of a pituitary macroadenoma and an ectopic CS.

The role of DDAVP test in differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent CS is still controversial and a high frequency of false positive results in patients with EAS has been reported [2]. However, in a recent work including 167 patients with CD and 27 patients with EAS, the positive response to both CRH and DDAVP test showed a positive predictive value of 100% for CD in patients with negative MRI and negative computed tomography scan [32]. In our study, similarly to CRH test and HDDST, also the combination of positive responses to both CRH and DDAVP tests reaches a specificity and PPV of 100% for the diagnosis of CD. However, DDAVP test presents low sensitivity and specificity, thus resulting in a high prevalence of false negative and false positive results as well as a concordance rate significantly lower than that observed for CRH test and HDDST in patients with negative MRI or with a microadenoma < 6 mm. In addition, in four of these patients we recorded a concordant negative response to CRH and DDAVP tests that might have resulted in misdiagnosis. Therefore, our data indicate that DDAVP test may represent a valid alternative, in particular when discordant results arise from other dynamic tests, but CRH test, HDDST and their combination perform better and reduce the need to perform BIPSS.

On the other hand, it is well recognized that DDAVP may have an important role in the post-surgical follow-up of CD patients, as the persistence or reappearance of a positive response may precede the clinical recurrence of disease [212233,34,35,36,37,38].

In our series, BIPSS confirmed the diagnosis of CD in 28 out of 30 patients who underwent this procedure. Two negative cases included one patient with a pituitary adenoma sized between 6 and 10 mm but discordant CRH test and HDDST and another one with negative imaging and concordant tests. Notably, in the latter case, a borderline central/periphery ratio of 2.91 was recorded. Nevertheless, diagnosis of CD was subsequently proven by remission after neurosurgery, suggesting that BIPSS returned a false negative result in both patients. The proportion of false negative we observed is in line with previous literature data reporting a prevalence of 3–19%, possibly related to anatomical or biochemical variations of disease [141727303940]. Furthermore, BIPSS is burdened by possible complications. In particular, minor adverse events (i.e., groin hematoma, tinnitus, otalgia) have been reported in about 4% of patients, while severe complications (i.e., brainstem infarction, subarachnoid haemorrhage, pulmonary and deep venous thrombosis) are expected in less than 1% of cases [2730]. As reported above, in our series one patient died 24 h after BIPSS due to cardiac rupture, while no complications in the other subjects were recorded. Although our fatal event was unlikely related to the procedure and complications are rare, all these observations point out the need for an accurate selection of patients referred to BIPSS.

Following the results of diagnostic performance analysis, in those patients with concordant positive responses to CRH test and HDDST but inconclusive neuroradiological findings (i.e., negative imaging or pituitary adenoma < 6 mm), the execution of BIPSS did not improve surgical outcome. Then, our data do not support the routine use of BIPSS in this subgroup of CD patients, in whom BIPSS could have been avoided in 22 out of 29 subjects. In this setting, contrarily to what the current guidelines propose [7131819], CRH test and HDDST seems to be sufficient to confirm the diagnosis of CD and to provide indication to pituitary surgery. Similarly, a negative response to both tests pointed toward EAS diagnosis; in this circumstance BIPSS can be avoided too. Indeed, the present study does not propose to remove BIPSS from the diagnostic work-up of ACTH-dependent CS diagnosis, but to restrict its use when really necessary.

Our study has some limitations: first, its retrospective nature, leading in particular to an inhomogeneous selection of patients referred to BIPSS. Second, our data do not allow to draw conclusions about patients with intermediate pituitary lesion between 6 and 10 mm. Although our approach was to avoid BIPSS even in case of discordant results, except in the presence of clinical features suggestive for ectopic CS (rapid onset, hypokalemia, advanced age), these cases can still represent matter of debate.

On the other side, the strength is represented by the comprehensive and punctual biochemical and diagnostic characterization of patients which in our view makes our results very reliable.

In conclusion, our study confirms that CRH test, DDAVP test and HDDST have high accuracy in the differential diagnosis of ACTH-dependent CS. In particular, the combination of CRH test and HDDST allows to achieve the best performance in terms of sensitivity and specificity. In patients with negative MRI or with a microadenoma < 6 mm, the presence of concordant positive response to CRH test and HDDST or to CRH test and DDAVP test seems to be sufficient to establish the diagnosis of CD. In this subgroup of patients, BIPSS should be therefore reserved for those cases with discordant tests.

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Funding

This work was supported by AIRC (Associazione Italiana Ricerca Cancro) grant to GM (IG 2017-20594), Italian Ministry of Health grant to GM (PE-2016-02361797) and by Ricerca Corrente Funds from the Italian Ministry of Health.

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Author notes

  1. E. Ferrante and M. Barbot have equally contributed to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Endocrinology Unit, Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico di Milano, Via Francesco Sforza, 35, 20122, Milan, ItalyE. Ferrante, A. L. Serban, G. Carosi, E. Sala, R. Indirli, M. Arosio & G. Mantovani
  2. Endocrinology Unit, Department of Medicine DIMED, University of Padova, Padua, ItalyM. Barbot, F. Ceccato, L. Lizzul, A. Daniele, M. Cuman, M. Boscaro & C. Scaroni
  3. Department of Experimental Medicine, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, ItalyA. L. Serban
  4. Department of Clinical Sciences and Community Health, University of Milan, Milan, ItalyG. Carosi, R. Indirli, M. Arosio & G. Mantovani
  5. Neurosurgery Department, Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico di Milano, Milan, ItalyM. Locatelli
  6. Department of Pathophysiology and Transplantation, University of Milan, Milan, ItalyM. Locatelli
  7. Department of Neurosciences, University of Padua, Padua, ItalyR. Manara

Corresponding author

Correspondence to G. Mantovani.

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Ethical approval

The study was approved by the Ethics Committee of Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico of Milan (Comitato Etico Milano Area 2, number 651_2019).

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Ferrante, E., Barbot, M., Serban, A.L. et al. Indication to dynamic and invasive testing in Cushing’s disease according to different neuroradiological findings. J Endocrinol Invest (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40618-021-01695-1

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Keywords

  • Cushing’s disease
  • ACTH-dependent Cushing’s syndrome
  • Differential diagnosis
  • Bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling

Novel Predictive Model for Adrenal Insufficiency in Dermatological Patients with Topical Corticosteroids Use: A Cross-Sectional Study

Purpose: This study aimed to identify predictive factors and to develop a predictive model for adrenal insufficiency (AI) related to topical corticosteroids use.
Methods: The research was conducted using a cross-sectional design. Adult patients with dermatological conditions who had been prescribed topical steroids for at least 12 months by the dermatology outpatient departments of the Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University from June through October 2020 were included. Data on potential predictors, including baseline characteristics and laboratory investigations, were collected. The diagnoses of AI were based on serum 8AM cortisol and low-dose ACTH stimulation tests. Multivariable logistic regression was used for the derivation of the diagnostic score.
Results: Of the 42 patients, 17 (40.5%) had AI. The statistically significant predictive factors for AI were greater body surface area of corticosteroids use, age < 60 years, and basal serum cortisol < 7 μg/dL. In the final predictive model, duration of treatment was added as a factor based on its clinical significance for AI. The four predictive factors with their assigned scores were: body surface area involvement 10– 30% (20), > 30% (25); age < 60 years old (15); basal serum cortisol of < 7 μg/dL (30); and duration of treatment in years. Risk of AI was categorized into three groups, low, intermediate and high risk, with total scores of < 25, 25– 49 and ≥ 50, respectively. The predictive performance for the model was 0.92 based on area under the curve.
Conclusion: The predictive model for AI in patients using topical corticosteroids provides guidance on the risk of AI to determine which patients should have dynamic ACTH stimulation tests (high risk) and which need only close follow-up (intermediate and low risk). Future validation of the model is warranted.

Keywords: adrenal insufficiency, topical corticosteroids, predictive model, skin diseases

Introduction

Topical corticosteroids are frequently used for inflammatory skin diseases owing to their anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects. Common indications for use include diseases such as psoriasis, eczema, atopic dermatitis, and vitiligo.1 In clinical practice, a variety of delivery vehicles and potencies of topical corticosteroids are used.1 Prolonged and/or inappropriate use of topical corticosteroids can lead to adverse side effects.2 These adverse side effects can be categorized as cutaneous and systemic side effects. The most common cutaneous side effect is skin atrophy. Systemic side effects include hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis suppression, glaucoma, hyperglycemia and hypertension.3

One of the most worrisome adverse side effects from the use of topical corticosteroids is adrenal insufficiency (AI) resulting from HPA axis suppression. Topically applied corticosteroids can be absorbed systemically through the skin and can suppress the HPA axis.4–8 This adverse outcome, the inability to increase cortisol production after stress, can lead to adrenal crisis, which is potentially life-threatening. Tests that are normally used to diagnose or exclude AI include serum morning cortisol and the dynamic ACTH stimulation test.9

Secondary AI from percutaneous absorption of topical corticosteroids is less common than with parenteral or oral administration. The cumulative doses and the durations of oral corticosteroid therapy associated with HPA axis suppression have been well documented.10 Data regarding the dose and duration of oral corticosteroids and HPA axis suppression have similarly been well established. A study by Curtis et al reported that the use of oral prednisolone >7.5 mg/day for an extended period (>3 weeks) was linked to this adverse event, and that the incidence increased with duration.10 However, corresponding data for topical corticosteroids has been limited. The degree of risk of HPA axis suppression from topical corticosteroids use is associated with the level of percutaneous absorption which, in turn, depends on numerous factors including the age of the patient (younger patients are more susceptible), body surface area treated, quantity of topical corticosteroids used, potency of the drug, duration of therapy, body region of application, the associated compounds used, eg, urea or salicylic acid, the characteristics of the diseased skin, the degree of impairment of skin integrity, and the coexistence of hepatic and/or renal disease.11–13 One study reported that HPA axis suppression occurs when high potency steroids are administered at a cumulative dose per week of >50 g.2

Presently, there is a lack of data on predictive factors for AI and no predicative model of the relationship between secondary AI resulting from HPA axis suppression and topical corticosteroids use. A simple predictive model which could help preclude and predict the risk of AI which incorporates both demographic and biochemical data could potentially reduce the number of dynamic ACTH stimulation tests performed. This study aimed to identify potential predictive factors and to design an easy-to-use model for predicting the risk of AI following topical corticosteroids use in dermatological patients.

Materials and Methods

This cross-sectional study was conducted with 42 patients who were seen at the dermatology outpatient departments at the Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University Hospital over a 5-month period (June – October 2020). The study protocol was approved by the Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University, Ethical Committee (Ethical number: MED-2563-07037). Recruited participants were adult dermatological patients (≥18 years) who had used topical corticosteroids for at least 12 months. Patients with pituitary or adrenal diseases, pregnant women and patients who had been treated with either systemic corticosteroids or other local corticosteroids were excluded. Those who meet all the inclusion criteria gave their informed consent prior to the study. This study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki.

Adrenal Function Evaluation

Adrenal function was evaluated by serum morning (8 AM) cortisol and the low-dose ACTH stimulation test. Patients were instructed to suspend use of topical corticosteroids for at least 24 hours before serum morning cortisol measurement and ACTH stimulation tests. In those with serum morning cortisol between 3 and 17.9 µg/dL, ACTH stimulation tests were performed on the same day between 9–11AM to either exclude or diagnose AI. Serum cortisol concentrations were measured at 8 AM 0 (basal cortisol) as well as 20 and 40 minutes after 5 µg ACTH was administered intravenously.

Data Collection

Epidemiological data collected included gender, age, blood pressure, underlying dermatologic diseases, other underlying diseases, body surface area involvement, sensitive area involvement, topical corticosteroid potency, amount and duration of topical corticosteroids use, symptoms of AI and the presence of Cushingoid features. Biochemical data included serum cortisol at 8 AM, 0 (basal cortisol) and at 20 and 40 minutes after ACTH intravenous injection, serum creatinine, electrolytes and albumin. Serum cortisol levels were measured by electrochemiluminescence assay (ECLIA) (Elecsys® Cortisol II assay, Roche Diagnostics GmbH, Mannheim, Germany).

Definitions

An 8AM cortisol level of ❤ µg/dL or a peak serum cortisol level of <18 µg/dL at 20 or 40 minutes after an ACTH stimulation test was defined as having AI.14 Sensitive area involvement included the axilla, groin, face and genitalia. Topical corticosteroids are classified by potency based on a skin vasoconstriction assay, and range from ultra-high potency (class I) to low potency (class VII).15 Since some patients had concurrently used more than one class of corticosteroids in one treatment period, the new variable potency·dose·time (summary of corticosteroids potency (I–VII)16 multiplied by total doses (mg) of corticosteroids use and multiplied by duration (months) of corticosteroids use) was created. Symptoms of AI included lethargy, nausea and vomiting, orthostatic hypotension and significant weight loss. Significant weight loss was defined as a loss of 5% of body weight in one month or a loss of 10% over a period of six months.17 Having Cushingoid features was defined as at least one of the excess glucocorticoid features, eg, easy bruising, facial plethora, proximal myopathy, striae, dorsocervical fat pad, facial fullness, obesity, supraclavicular fullness, hirsutism, decreased libido and menstrual abnormalities.

Statistical Analysis

All statistical analyses were performed using Stata 16 (StataCorp, College Station, Texas, USA). Categorical variables are reported as frequency and percentage, while continuous variables are reported as mean ± standard deviation or median and interquartile range (IQR), according to their distribution. For univariable comparison, Fisher’s exact probability test was used for categorical variables, and the independent t-test or the Mann–Whitney U-test was used for continuous variables. p-values less than 0.05 were considered statistically significant.

Multivariable logistic regression was used in the derivation of the prediction model for AI. Predictors with significant p-values in the univariable analysis were included in the multivariable model. We also included age and treatment duration in the model due to the clinical significance of those factors.4,18 The clinical collinearity among the predictors was also evaluated before the selection of the predictors. We generated a weighted score for each predictor by dividing the logit coefficient of the predictor by the lowest coefficient in the model. The discriminative ability of the final multivariable model was assessed using the area under the receiver operating characteristics (ROC) curve. The calibration of the scores was evaluated using the Hosmer-Lemeshow goodness-of-fit test, where a p-value >0.01 was considered a good fit. For clinical applicability, the appropriate cut-off points for the scores were identified based on sensitivity and specificity. We identified one cut-off point with high sensitivity for ruling out AI and another cut-off point with high specificity for ruling in AI. The positive predictive value for each score category with its corresponding confidence interval were presented. A sample size of at least 25 patients with at least 5 patients with AI was estimated to give 80% power at the 5% significance level.4 There was no missing data in this study.

Results

Baseline characteristics and biochemical investigations are shown in Table 1. Forty-two patients with dermatological diseases were included in this study. Of these, 17 patients (40.5%) had AI of whom 5 (29.4%) were female. The mean age of the group was 56.5 ±15.4 years, the mean duration of treatment was 10.1 ± 6 years, and the majority of patients had psoriasis (n = 14, 82.4%). There was no significant difference in sex, age, duration of treatment, potency dose-time, comorbidities, or underlying skin disease between the AI and non-AI groups. The average body surface area of corticosteroids use was significantly higher in patients with AI than in the non-AI group (27.5 ±18.7 m2 and 10.7 ±11.7 m2, p < 0.001, respectively). Basal serum cortisol levels were significantly lower in the AI group (6.52 ± 4.04 µg/dL) than in the non-AI group (10.48 ± 3.45 µg/dL, p 0.003). Although lower serum morning cortisol levels were observed in the AI group, the difference was not statistically significant (5.24 ± 4.65 µg/dL vs 13.39 ± 15.68 µg/dL, p = 0.069). Three patients were identified as having Cushingoid features. All patients with Cushingoid features had AI.

Table 1 Comparison of Clinical Characteristics Between Patients with a History of Topical Corticosteroids Use for at Least 12 Months Who Were Diagnosed with Adrenal Insufficiency and Those without Adrenal Insufficiency (n = 42)

 

Based on the multivariate logistic regression analysis (shown in Table 2), the significant predictive factors for AI in patients who used topical corticosteroids for more than 12 months were body surface area of corticosteroids use of 10–30% and >30% (POR 18.9, p =0.042, and POR 59.2, p = 0.035, respectively), age less than 60 years (POR 13.8, p = 0.04), and basal serum cortisol of <7 µg/dL (POR 131.5, p = 0.003). Only serum basal cortisol was included in the final multivariable model as there was clinical collinearity among serum morning cortisol and basal cortisol as well as 20- and 40-minute cortisol measurements.

Table 2 Multivariable Model for Prediction of Adrenal Insufficiency in Patients with a History of Topical Corticosteroids Use for at Least 12 Months (n = 38)

 

Predictive risk score was created to determine the probability of patients having AI using the aforementioned three significant predictive factors from the multivariable analysis (Table 2). As previous studies have demonstrated that duration of treatment is a strong predictive factor for AI in corticosteroid users,4,18 this factor was also incorporated in the model. The transformed score for body surface area, age and basal serum cortisol had a range of 0 to 30. For treatment duration, the transformed score was based on cumulative years of treatment. The total score was categorized into three groups: low, intermediate, and high risk (Table 3).

Table 3 Accuracy of the Score to Rule in and Rule Out Adrenal Insufficiency in Patients with a History of Topical Corticosteroids Use for at Least 12 Months (n = 38)

 

The cut-off point of ≥50 suggests high risk for developing AI with a sensitivity of 46.2% and a specificity of 100%, a score of <25 suggests a low risk with a sensitivity of 100% and a specificity of 52%, and a score between 25 and 49 indicates an intermediate risk of having AI. The ROC curve for the model assessing predictive performance which included all significant factors had an AuROC of 0.92 (Figure 1). The Hosmer-Lemeshow goodness-of-fit test revealed non-statistically significant results (p = 0.599), indicating that our newly derived scoring system fits the data well.

Figure 1 Model discrimination via receiver operating characteristic curve in patients with a history of topical corticosteroids use for at least 12 months (n = 42).

 

Discussion

The present study proposes an easy-to-use predictive model for AI following topical corticosteroids use in dermatological patients based on demographic and biochemical factors. The accuracy of the model shows an excellent diagnostic accuracy of 92% based on AuROC. Currently, the diagnosis of AI in dermatological patients with topical corticosteroids use involves multiple steps including screening for serum morning cortisol followed by dynamic ACTH stimulation testing. The proposed simple predictive model, which requires only three demographic data items (age, body surface area of corticosteroids use, duration of use) and one biochemical test (serum basal cortisol), could potentially reduce the number of dynamic ACTH stimulation tests performed, resulting in cost- and time-saving for both patients and health-care facilities.

Based on the proposed cut-off points, we suggest screening of individuals at high risk for having AI, including serum morning cortisol and the ACTH stimulation tests to confirm a diagnosis of AI. If there is evidence of AI, the patient should begin to receive treatment for AI to reduce future complications. For those in the low-risk group, only clinical follow-up should be carried out. In the intermediate-risk group, we recommend regular and close biochemical follow-up including serum morning cortisol and clinical follow-up for signs and symptoms of AI. Signs and symptoms that should raise a high index of suspicion for AI include significant weight loss, nausea and/or vomiting, orthostatic hypotension and lethargy. However, this proposed predictive model was studied in adults and cannot simply be generalized and extrapolated to children or infants.

In our study, 40.5% of the patients were determined to have AI. A previous meta-analysis by Broersen et al reported the percentage of patients with AI secondary to all potencies of topical corticosteroids based on a review of 15 studies was 4.7%, 95% CI (1.1–18.5%).19 The higher prevalence of AI in our study could be a result of differences in patients’ baseline characteristics, eg, duration of treatment, corticosteroids potency and body surface area involvement.

In the predictive model, we incorporated both clinical and biochemical factors which are easy to obtain in actual clinical practice. Some of those predictive factors have been previously reported to be linked to AI. Body surface area of corticosteroids use larger than 10% found to be significantly related to AI, especially in patients with a lesion area of over 30%. This finding is consistent with a study by Kerner et al which suggests the extent of surface area to which the corticosteroids are applied may influence absorption of the drug.20 Regarding the age of the patients, our study found that individuals over 60 years old tended to be at high risk of AI following topical corticosteroids therapy. The underlying explanation is that the stratum corneum acts as a rate-limiting barrier to percutaneous absorption as the stratum corneum in younger individuals is thinner than in older people. Diminished effectiveness of topical corticosteroid treatment in older people was demonstrated in a study by Malzfeldt et al.21 Even though serum basal cortisol is not recommended as a standard test to diagnose AI, a prior study reported that it can be considered as an alternative choice to diagnose AI when serum morning cortisol results are not available. In fact, it has been reported that there is no difference in diagnostic accuracy between serum morning cortisol and basal cortisol22 which supports our finding that serum basal cortisol <7 µg/dL is one of the significant factors related to AI.

The final model found no statistically significant relationship between the incidence of AI and the duration of corticosteroids treatment. However, we decided to include this factor in the final model since previous publications have reported that the duration of treatment is a relevant risk factor for developing AI following continuous topical corticosteroids use. The duration of AI events has been reported to vary between 2 weeks to 18 months.4,18 Additionally, a case report of AI demonstrated that 5 years of topical corticosteroids use can cause AI.6 Together, this suggests that patients with a longer duration of topical corticosteroids use are at increased risk of AI, especially those who also have other risk factors. Although both potency and dosage of topical corticosteroids have been reported to be significantly linked to HPA axis suppression, the present study found only a non-significance link. This could be the result of the small sample size as well as of other factors, eg, body surface area involvement and serum cortisol levels, which could have masked the association between potency and dosage of topical corticosteroids with HPA suppression.

To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first to use these novel predictive factors to develop a predictive model for AI in patients using topical corticosteroids. This model has multiple potential implications. First, the model uses clinical and biochemical factors which are obtainable in many institutes. Second, the model’s risk score provides good diagnostic accuracy in terms of both sensitivity and specificity. Finally, each of the predictive factors in the model has an underlying pathophysiological explanation and is not due simply to chance.

There are some limitations in this study. First, the sample size is relatively small, although it does offer sufficient statistical power for each of the predictive factors. Second, further external validation is needed to validate the predictive performance of the model. Third, the cut-off level of serum cortisol after ACTH stimulation test was based on the older generation of ECLIA assay. There was a study proposed that the cut-off for serum cortisol in the newer generation of cortisol assay should be lower (~14–15 µg/dL) than the previous one (18 µg/dL).23 However, this proposed cut-off has not yet been established in the current guideline for AI. In the future, if the newer cut-off for serum cortisol will have been employed in the standard guideline, our predictive model may lead to overdiagnosis of AI.

Conclusions

The proposed predictive model uses both demographic and biochemical factors to determine the risk of AI in dermatological patients following topical corticosteroids use with a high level of diagnostic accuracy. This model has advantages in terms of a reduction in the number of dynamic ACTH stimulation tests needed, thus saving time and resources. Additionally, it can provide guidance to clinical practitioners regarding which patients should be closely followed up for development of AI. Future external validation of this predictive model is warranted.

Acknowledgments

The authors are grateful to Lamar G. Robert, PhD and Chongchit S. Robert, PhD for editing the manuscript.

Disclosure

The authors report no conflict of interest in this work.

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