Mild Cases of Cushing’s Syndrome Present Diagnostic Challenges

By Tori Rodriguez, MA, LPC

 

In the early 20th century, the term “pluriglandular syndrome” was coined by Harvey Cushing to describe the disorder that results from chronic tissue exposure to excessive levels of glucocorticoids.1 Now called Cushing’s syndrome, the condition affects an estimated 10-15 million people annually, most often women and individuals between the ages of 20 and 50 years.2 Risk factors and common comorbidities include hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, uncontrolled diabetes, depression, and anxiety.3

Presentation

The clinical presentation of the disorder is heterogenous and varies by sex, age, and disease severity. Common signs and symptoms include central adiposity, roundness of the face or extra fat around the neck, thin skin, impaired short-term memory and concentration, irritability, hirsutism in women, fatigue, and menstrual irregularity.4 Because each of these features may be observed in a wide range of other conditions, it may be difficult to diagnose cases that are not severe.

“It can be challenging to differentiate the milder forms from pseudo-Cushing’s states,” which are characterized by altered cortisol production and many of the same clinical features as Cushing’s syndrome, according to Roberto Salvatori, MD, the medical director of the Johns Hopkins Pituitary Center, Baltimore, Maryland. These may include alcoholism, obesity, eating disorders, and depression. “Because Cushing’s can cause depression, for example, it is sometimes difficult to determine which came first,” he says. In these states, however, hypercortisolism is believed to be driven by increased secretion of hypothalamic corticotropin-releasing hormone, which is suppressed in Cushing’s syndrome.5

Causes and Diagnosis

If Cushing’s syndrome is suspected on the basis of the patient’s physical appearance, the diagnostic workup should include a thorough medical history, physical exam, and 1 or more of the following tests to establish hypercortisolism: the 24-hour urinary cortisol test, the low-dose dexamethasone suppression test, or the late-night salivary cortisol test. “We sometimes use 2 or 3 of these tests since 1 may not accurately reflect cortisol production in a particular patient,” Dr Salvatori notes. The next step is to determine the source of the hypercortisolism, which may involve the high-dose dexamethasone suppression test, magnetic resonance imaging, or petrosal sinus sampling.2

Medication is the most common cause of Cushing’s syndrome. These iatrogenic or exogenous cases typically result from corticosteroids administered for conditions such as asthma, allergies, and autoimmune disorders.6 More rarely, the disorder can be caused by the use of medroxyprogesterone. In these cases, corticosteroids should be reduced or discontinued under medical care, if possible.

Endogenous Cushing’s syndrome results from the presence of benign or malignant tumors on the adrenal or pituitary glands or elsewhere in the body. These tumors can interfere with the adrenal glands’ production of cortisol that is usually prompted by the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) released by the pituitary gland.6 There are 3 different mechanisms by which the process can occur.

  • Pituitary adenomas, which account for approximately 70% of endogenous cases of Cushing’s syndrome, secrete ACTH and stimulate additional cortisol production. Because of the large proportion of cases this condition represents, it is specifically referred to as Cushing’s disease. It is more common in women than men (with a ratio of 3 to 4:1), although in pediatric patients, it occurs more frequently in boys vs girls.5
  • Adrenal tumors (adenomas, malignant tumors, or micronodular hyperplasia) produce cortisol in their own tissue in addition to the amount produced by the adrenal glands. These tumors, which cause approximately 15% of endogenous Cushing’s syndrome cases, are more common in children vs adults and in women vs men.
  • Benign or malignant tumors elsewhere in the body, most often the lungs, thyroid, thymus, and pancreas, secrete ACTH and trigger the excessive release of cortisol. An estimated 15% of endogenous cases are attributed to these types of tumors.

Treatment

Surgery is the first-line treatment for Cushing’s syndrome. “We first want to try to figure out the cause of the disorder,” Dr Salvatori says. “Ideally, treatment involves surgery to remove the tumor that is causing it.”

When surgery is unsuccessful, contraindicated, or delayed, other treatment options include radiation or medications that inhibit cortisol, modulate the release of ACTH, or inhibit steroidogenesis.5 Bilateral adrenalectomy may be indicated for patients who do not respond to medication or other surgery.

If surgical resection of the tumor is successful, then “all of the comorbidities reverse, but if it is unsuccessful or must be delayed, you would treat each comorbidity” with the appropriate medication; for example, antihypertensives for high blood pressure and antidiabetic medications for diabetes, Dr Salvatori advises. In severe cases, prophylactic antibiotics may be indicated for the prevention of severe infections such as pneumonia.

It is also important to inquire about and address psychiatric symptoms related to Cushing’s syndrome, even in patients who are in remission. It has been proposed that the chronic hypercortisolism and dysfunction of the HPA axis may “lead to structural and functional changes in the central nervous system, developing brain atrophy, particularly in the hippocampus, which may determine the high prevalence of psychiatric disorders, such as affective and anxiety disorders or cognitive dysfunctions,” according to a recently published paper on the topic.7 Patients should be screened with self-report questionnaires such as the Beck Depression Inventory and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, and management of psychiatric symptoms may include patient education, psychotropic medications, and referral to a mental health professional.

Future Directions

Several trials are currently planned or underway, including a phase 2 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of an oral medication called ATR-101 by Millendo Therapeutics, Inc. (ClinicalTrials.gov identifier: NCT03053271). In addition to the need for novel medical therapies, refined imaging techniques could improve surgical success rates in patients with Cushing’s disease in particular, according to Dr Salvatori. “A significant portion of these patients have tumors too small to be detected by MRI, and the development of more sensitive MRI could improve detection and provide a surgical target” for neurosurgeons treating the patients, he says.

Summary

Milder cases of Cushing’s syndrome present diagnostic challenges are a result overlapping features with various other conditions. Diagnosis may require careful observation as well as biochemical and imaging tests.

References

  1. Loriaux DL. Diagnosis and differential diagnosis of Cushing’s syndromeN Engl J Med. 2017;376:1451-1459. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1505550
  2. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Cushing’s syndrome/disease. http://www.aans.org/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Cushings-Disease. Accessed August 1, 2017.
  3. León-Justel A, Madrazo-Atutxa A, Alvarez-Rios AI, et al. A probabilistic model for cushing’s syndrome screening in at-risk populations: a prospective multicenter studyJ Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2016;101:3747-3754. doi:10.1210/jc.2016-1673
  4. The Pituitary Society. Cushing’s syndrome and disease–symptoms. https://pituitarysociety.org/patient-education/pituitary-disorders/cushings/symptoms-of-cushings-disease-and-cushings-syndrome. Accessed August 1, 2017.
  5. Sharma ST, Nieman LK, Feelders RA. Cushing’s syndrome: epidemiology and developments in disease managementClin Epidemiol. 2015;7:281-293. doi:10.2147/CLEP.S44336
  6. National Institutes of Health: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What causes Cushing’s syndrome?https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/cushing/conditioninfo/pages/causes.aspx. Accessed August 1, 2017.
  7. Santos A, Resmini E, Pascual JC, Crespo I, Webb SM. Psychiatric symptoms in patients with Cushing’s syndrome: prevalence, diagnosis and management. Drugs. 2017;77:829-842. doi:10.1007/s40265-017-0735-z

From http://www.endocrinologyadvisor.com/adrenal/cushings-syndrome-diagnosis-treatment/article/682302/

An unusual case of Cushing’s syndrome due to bihormonal ACTH–prolactin secreting pituitary macroadenoma with rapid response to cabergoline

  1. Shalini Kunasegaran1,2,
  2. Michael S Croxson1,
  3. Ian Holdaway1,
  4. Rinki Murphy1

+Author Affiliations


  1. 1Department of EndocrinologyAuckland District Health BoardAuckland, New Zealand

  2. 2Department of EndocrinologyWaitemata District Health BoardTakapuna, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to Dr Shalini Kunasegaran, shal84@gmail.com
  • Accepted 13 July 2017
  • Published 7 August 2017

Summary

A 23-year-old man presenting with florid Cushing’s syndrome was found to have high plasma ACTH and very high serum prolactin. Pituitary MRI showed a large invasive macroadenoma.

Low-dose cabergoline promptly suppressed both ACTH and prolactin levels within 2 weeks, with unexpected clinical and biochemical hypocortisolism requiring hydrocortisone replacement. Secondary hypogonadism was reversed. Clinical and biochemical remission of his Cushing’s syndrome together with significant shrinkage of his macroadenoma has been maintained for 1 year on cabergoline 0.5 mg twice weekly. Reduction in pituitary

Reduction in pituitary tumour volume and brisk fall in serum prolactin in response to low-dose cabergoline is regularly observed in patients with macroprolactinomas, but the concurrent fall in the plasma ACTH level and hypocortisolism was a pleasant surprise.

We assume that he most likely has a single bihormonal adenoma that is enriched with dopamine-2 receptors.

From http://casereports.bmj.com/content/2017/bcr-2017-219921.short?rss=1

[Pseudo-Cushing’s] Michigan woman nearly dies after herbal supplement found to be laced with steroids

MADISON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WXYZ) – Since 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received more than 26,000 reports of adverse events and complaints about dietary supplements.

Jody Higgins of Madison Heights, Michigan made one of those complaints to the FDA, after she says she found out the herbs she had been taking were making her seriously ill.

“I really thought I was going to die I was getting so sick,” Higgins said.

Back in 2015, Higgins says her legs started hurting.  She says she didn’t have great health insurance, and she was hoping for a more holistic approach, so a friend referred her to Far East Ginseng Herbs and Tea in nearby Sterling Heights.

“They suggested that I take something that was called Linsen Double Caulis. I had never heard of it before, and it appeared to have all herbs on the label,” Higgins said.

Higgins says for a while, she felt better, and when she stopped taking the Linsen Double Caulis, the leg pain returned. So, she says she kept taking it for nearly a year, even though she started noticing strange symptoms.

“Within four months I had gained 80 pounds,” she said.

She suddenly had facial hair growth, severe facial swelling, extremely swollen ankles, and had dark purple stretch marks all over her body.

“I wasn’t recognizable,” said Higgins.  “I couldn’t stand for longer than 2 minutes. I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t wash my clothing. I could barely get in the shower.”

After visiting several doctors, Higgins was eventually referred to University of Michigan Endocrinologist Dr. Ariel Barkan.

“The minute that I said I had been taking a Chinese herbal remedy, he said ‘you’ve been poisoned. I know it.’ Those were his exact words,” said Higgins.

“Her situation was pretty shaky,” Barkan said.

Barkan sent the Linsin Double Caulis herbal supplement to the Mayo Clinic for testing.

“They were loaded with Dexamethasone … [which] is a medication.  It’s a synthetic steroid, very potent, very long acting, and if we take it for quite some time, we develop what is called Cushing Syndrome,” said Dr. Barkan.

Higgins was diagnosed with Cushing Syndrome, and Barkan says she could have died if she hadn’t sought help.

“The mortality for untreated Cushing Syndrome is 50% within 5 years,” said Barkan.  “ … immunity is completely suppressed. And when you don’t have immunity, the first virus, the first germ may cause [a] fatal infection and you will die.”

Higgins says once she stopped taking the Linsen Double Caulis, the facial hair went away, but she’s still struggling with her weight. Barkan says her health should improve, although it will take time.

Both doctor and patient say they have contacted the FDA about this, and they each have a warning about taking herbal supplements.

“Please just be very cautious,” Higgins said.

“Don’t touch it. Don’t touch it, you’re playing Russian roulette,” said Barkan.

Jody Higgins says she met with an investigator from the FDA’s criminal division.

An FDA spokesperson would only say that they do not discuss possible or ongoing investigations.

The lawyer for the store where Higgins says she purchased the supplement told us the owners will not be commenting on, but the owner did say they no longer sell this product.

From http://www.fox4now.com/news/national/madison-heights-woman-herbal-supplement-caused-life-threatening-illness

Ectopic Cushing’s syndrome associated with thoracic tumors

Results of a retrospective review conducted in southern India demonstrate that ectopic Cushing’s syndrome occurred most commonly in association with thoracic tumors.

Researchers added that early control over hypercortisolemia was necessary to prevent metabolic complications and infections, both of which had the potential to be life-threatening.

“As compared to patients with pituitary-dependent Cushing’s syndrome, patients with [ectopic Cushing Syndrome] present with a rapid progression of symptoms,” Nihal Thomas, MD, MNAMS, DNB, FRACP, professor in the department of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at Christian Medical College, Vellore, India, and colleagues wrote. “It is also associated with typical features of proximal muscle weakness, severe hypokalaemic metabolic alkalosis, hyperpigmentation, edema, hypertension and glucose intolerance. Early diagnosis and localization of the ectopic source of [adrenocorticotrophic hormone] is crucial, because the treatment of choice in most of these patients is complete excision of the tumor. Localizing the source of excess ACTH continues to be a challenge in most patients.”

Thomas and colleagues reviewed the records of 21 patients treated at a tertiary care center in southern India from 2006 to 2015. The researchers documented patients’ clinical features, history and images from radiological findings and PET scans, as well as details of management, follow-up and outcomes. They also compared those with ectopic Cushing’s syndrome with 20 patients who had Cushing’s disease.

Median age was 34 years. Thomas and colleagues reported that one patient demonstrated “an occult source of ACTH.” The rest had a variety of tumors: bronchial carcinoid (n = 7), thymic carcinoid (n = 7), lung malignancies (n = 3), medullary thyroid carcinoma (n = 2) and pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor (n = 1).

At presentation, muscle weakness was the most common clinical feature (95%), followed by hyperpigmentation (90%), facial puffiness (76%), easy bruising (61%), edema (57%) and striae (52%). Slightly less than half (43%) showed extensive acne. Central obesity in ectopic Cushing’s syndrome was uncommon and occurred in 14% of patients (n = 3), according to Thomas and colleagues; however, it was more prevalent (n = 18) in those with Cushing’s disease.

Median cortisol at 8 a.m. was 55.5 mcg/dL, the researchers wrote, while median 8 a.m. ACTH was 207 pg/mL. The median 24-hour urinary free cortisol level was 2,484 mcg.

Compared with patients with Cushing’s disease, those with ectopic Cushing’s syndrome had “markedly higher” midnight cortisol and ACTH, as well as basal cortisol and ACTH.

During follow-up, more than half of patients (12 of 21) with ectopic Cushing’s syndrome developed life-threatening infections. Although nine patients received surgery for their tumors, only one patient achieved a complete cure during the study period, the researchers wrote.

“In our series, patients with [ectopic Cushing’s syndrome] have more profound hypokalemia, and hypercortisolemia with higher levels of ACTH,” Thomas and colleagues wrote. “The prognosis of patients with [ectopic Cushing’s syndrome] was dependent on tumor histology. The role of a timely adrenalectomy needs to be considered in patients with hypercortisolemia unresponsive to medical management, and in patients with metastatic or recurrent disease.” – by Andy Polhamus

Disclosure: Endocrine Today was unable to confirm any relevant financial disclosures.

From https://www.healio.com/endocrinology/adrenal/news/in-the-journals/%7Be42c81a5-fd5b-4313-9b2b-9bcbdec7f8ce%7D/ectopic-cushings-syndrome-associated-with-thoracic-tumors

Drug trial begins for Cushing’s syndrome therapy

Participant enrollment has concluded for a phase 3 trial investigating the safety and efficacy of levoketoconazole, a cortisol synthesis inhibitor, for the treatment of endogenous Cushing’s syndrome, according to a press release from Strongbridge Biopharma, the drug’s developer.

The single-arm, open-label SONICS study will include the 90 enrolled participants and may allow a small number of other patients to enroll also, according to the release.

After titration to a therapeutic dose of levoketoconazole (Recorlev), participants will maintain treatment for 6 months, the primary efficacy endpoint. Longer-term evaluation for safety will extend to 1 year. A planned 6-month double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized withdrawal extension, dubbed LOGICS, will include approximately half of the participants from SONICS.

“The need for a safe and effective, next-generation cortisol synthesis inhibitor, such as Recorlev, in the treatment of Cushing’s syndrome is substantial. Through achieving target enrollment in the SONICS study, we are one step closer to better understanding the clinical value of Recorlev and potentially bringing a new therapeutic treatment option to this community,” said Matthew Pauls, president and chief executive officer of Strongbridge Biopharma.

The company expects to announce results of SONICS in the second quarter of 2018 and of LOGICS in the third quarter, according to the release.

For more information:

Clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01838551

From https://www.healio.com/endocrinology/adrenal/news/online/%7Bdddb8b5b-e4c8-412f-b4b8-82acde8f21a2%7D/drug-trial-begins-for-cushings-syndrome-therapy

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