Catastrophic ACTH-secreting Pheochromocytoma



Cushing’s syndrome due to ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) secretion (EAS) by a pheochromocytoma is a challenging condition. A woman with hypertension and an anamnestic report of a ‘non-secreting’ left adrenal mass developed uncontrolled blood pressure (BP), hyperglycaemia and severe hypokalaemia. ACTH-dependent severe hypercortisolism was ascertained in the absence of Cushingoid features, and a psycho-organic syndrome developed. Brain imaging revealed a splenial lesion of the corpus callosum and a pituitary microadenoma. The adrenal mass displayed high uptake on both 18F-FDG PET/CT and 68Ga-DOTATOC PET/CT; urinary metanephrine levels were greatly increased. The combination of antihypertensive drugs, high-dose potassium infusion, insulin and steroidogenesis inhibitor normalized BP, metabolic parameters and cortisol levels; laparoscopic left adrenalectomy under intravenous hydrocortisone infusion was performed. On combined histology and immunohistochemistry, an ACTH-secreting pheochromocytoma was diagnosed. The patient’s clinical condition improved and remission of both hypercortisolism and catecholamine hypersecretion ensued. Brain magnetic resonance imaging showed a reduction of the splenial lesion. Off-therapy BP and metabolic parameters remained normal. The patient was discharged on cortisone replacement therapy for post-surgical hypocortisolism. EAS due to pheochromocytoma displays multifaceted clinical features and requires prompt diagnosis and multidisciplinary management in order to overcome the related severe clinical derangements.

Learning points

  • A small but significant number of cases of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-dependent Cushing’s syndrome are caused by ectopic ACTH secretion by neuroendocrine tumours, which is usually associated with severe hypercortisolism causing severe clinical and metabolic derangements.
  • Ectopic ACTH secretion by a pheochromocytoma is exceedingly rare but can be life-threatening, owing to the simultaneous excess of both cortisol and catecholamines.
  • The combination of biochemical and hormonal testing and imaging procedures is mandatory for the diagnosis of ectopic ACTH secretion, and in the presence of an adrenal mass, the possibility of an ACTH-secreting pheochromocytoma should be taken into account.
  • Immediate-acting steroidogenesis inhibitors are required for the treatment of hypercortisolism, and catecholamine excess should also be appropriately managed before surgical removal of the tumour.
  • A multidisciplinary approach is required for the treatment of this challenging entity.


Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is a rare endocrine disease characterized by high levels of glucocorticoids; it increases morbidity and mortality due to cardiovascular and infectious diseases (123).

To diagnose CS, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-dependent disease must be distinguished from ACTH-independent disease, and pituitary ACTH production from ectopic production. About 20% of ACTH-dependent cases arise from ectopic ACTH secretion (EAS) (234). EAS is most often due to aberrant ACTH production by small-cell lung carcinoma or neuroendocrine tumours originating in the lungs or gastrointestinal tract; this, in turn, strongly increases cortisol production by the adrenal glands (345).

Since the first-line treatment of EAS is the surgical removal of the ectopic ACTH-secreting tumour, its prompt and accurate localization is crucial.

Rapid cortisol reduction by means of immediate-acting steroidogenesis inhibitors (4) is mandatory in order to treat the related endocrine, metabolic and electrolytic derangements. EAS by a pheochromocytoma is exceedingly rare and can be life-threatening.

We describe the case of a woman with hypertension and a known ‘non-secreting’ left adrenal mass, who manifested uncontrolled blood pressure (BP), hyperglycaemia, hypokalaemia and psycho-organic syndrome associated with damage of the splenium of the corpus callosum. These findings were eventually seen to be related to an ACTH-secreting left pheochromocytoma, which was ascertained by hormonal evaluation and morphological and functional imaging assessment and confirmed by histopathology/immunostaining. Hormonal hypersecretion resolved after adrenalectomy and metabolic derangements normalized.

Case presentation

A 72-year-old woman with hypertension was taken to the emergency department because of increased BP (200/100 mm Hg). High BP (190/100 mmHg) was confirmed, whereas oxygen saturation (98%), heart rate (84 bpm) and lung and abdomen examination were normal. Electrocardiogram and chest x-ray were unremarkable. Captopril 50 mg orally, followed by intramuscular clonidine, normalized BP.

The patient looked thin and reported significant weight loss (10 kg) over the previous 6 months; she was on antihypertensive therapy with bisoprolol 5 mg/day and irbesartan 150 mg/day, and ezetimibe 10 mg/day for dyslipidaemia. The patient’s records included a previous diagnosis in another hospital of normofunctioning multinodular goitre and a 2.5 cm-left solid inhomogeneous adrenal mass with well-defined margins, which was found on CT performed 6 years earlier during the work-up for hypertension. On the basis of hormonal data and absent uptake on 123I metaiodobenzylguanidine scintigraphy, the adrenal lesion had been deemed to be non-functioning and follow-up had been advised. Unfortunately, only initial cortisol (15.7 μg/dL) and 24-h urine-free cortisol (UFC) levels (32.5 μg/24 h) were retrievable; both proved normal.


Blood chemistry showed neutrophilic leucocytosis, hyperglycaemia with increased glycated haemoglobin, severe hypokalaemia and metabolic alkalosis (Table 1). Potassium infusion (50 mEq in 500 mL saline/24 h) was rapidly started, together with a subcutaneous rapid-acting insulin analogue and prophylactic enoxaparin. The patient experienced mental confusion, hallucinations and restlessness; non-enhanced computed tomography (CT) of the brain revealed a hypodense area of the splenium of the corpus callosum, possibly due to metabolic damage (Fig. 1A).

Figure 1View Full Size
Figure 1

Non-enhanced CT showing a hypodense area of the splenium of the corpus callosum (arrows), without mass effect (A, axial view). Contrast-enhanced MR image showing a hypointense pituitary lesion (arrow) which enhances more slowly than normal pituitary parenchyma, deemed suspicious for microadenoma (B, coronal view). FLAIR MR image showing hyperintense signal of the splenium of the corpus callosum (asterisk), which partially extended to the crux of the left fornix (arrow) (C, axial view). As the lesion showed no restricted diffusion on DWI (D, axial view), an ischaemic lesion was excluded. A progressive reduction in the extension of the hyperintense signal in the splenium of the corpus callosum (arrowheads) and in the crux of the left fornix (arrows) was observed on FLAIR MR images (2 months (E); 3 months (F); axial view). CT, computed tomography; DWI, diffusion-weighted imaging; FLAIR, fluid-attenuated inversion recovery; MR, magnetic resonance.

Citation: Endocrinology, Diabetes & Metabolism Case Reports 2023, 2; 10.1530/EDM-22-0308

Table 1Hormonal and biochemical evaluation of patient throughout hospitalization and follow-up.

Normal range On hospital admission After surgery
10 days 2 months 3 months 6 months 9 months 12 months 16 months
ACTH (pg/mL) 9–52 551 7 37 50 29.5 26 40.9 52
Morning cortisol† (µg/dL) 7–19.2 63.4 14 5.1 3.5 3.8 4.2 7.2 12.8
After 1 mg overnight dexamethasone
 ACTH 583
 Cortisol 60
DHEAS (µg/dL) 9.4–246 201
24-h urinalysis (µg/24 h)
 Adrenaline 0–14.9 95.5
 Noradrenaline 0–66 1133
 Metanephrine 74–297 1927
 Normetanephrine 105–354 1133
Chromogranin A 0–108 290
Renin (supine) (µU/mL) 2.4–29 3.9 14.6
Aldosterone (supine) (ng/dL) 3–15 3.4 12.5
LH (mIU/mL)* > 10 0.3 65.8
FSH (mIU/mL)* > 25 1.9 116
PRL (ng/mL) 3–24 13.7
FT4 (ng/dL) 0.9–1.7 1.1 1.2
FT3 (pg/mL) 1.8–4.6 1.1 2.7
TSH (µU/mL) 0.27–4.2 0.23 1.3
PTH (pg/mL) 15–65 166
Calcium (mg/dL) 8.2–10.2 8.2
Calcitonin (pg/mL) 0–10 1
Glycaemia (mg/dL) 60–110 212 69 73 83
Potassium (mEq/L) 3.5–5 2.4 3.3 3.9 4.2 3.7 5 4.4 3.9
Leucocytes (K/µL) 4.0–9.3 15.13
HbA1c (mmol/mol) 20–42 55 30
HCO3 (mEq/L) 22–26 41.8

*For menopausal age; †07:00–10:00 h.


The patient was transferred to the internal medicine ward. Although potassium infusion was increased to 120 mEq/day, serum levels did not normalize; a mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist (potassium canreonate) was therefore introduced, but the effect was partial. In order to control BP, the irbersartan dose was increased (300 mg/day) and amlodipine (10 mg/day) was added.

The combination of severe hypertension, newly occurring diabetes and resistant hypokalaemia prompted us to hypothesize a common endocrine aetiology.

A thorough hormonal array showed very high ACTH and cortisol levels, whereas supine renin and aldosterone levels were in the low-normal range (Table 1). Since our patient proved repeatedly non-compliant with 24-h urine collection, UFC could not be measured.

After an overnight 1 mg dexamethasone suppression test, cortisol levels remained unchanged, whereas ACTH levels slightly increased (Table 1). Notably, the patient showed no Cushingoid features. Gonadotropin levels were inappropriately low for the patient’s age; FT4 levels were normal, whereas FT3 and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels were reduced and calcitonin levels were normal (Table 1). HbA1c levels were increased (Table 1).

Finally, secondary hyperparathyroidism, associated with low-normal calcium levels and reduced vitamin D levels, was found (Table 1).

Brain contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance (MR) imaging revealed a 5-mm median posterior pituitary microadenoma (Fig. 1B) and a hyperintense lesion of the splenium of the corpus callosum (Fig. 1C). Diffusion-weighted MR images of the lesion showed no restricted diffusion (Fig. 1D), thus excluding an ischaemic origin. Petrosal venous sampling for ACTH determination at baseline and after CRH stimulation was excluded, as it was deemed a high-risk procedure, given the patient’s poor condition.

Since the ACTH and cortisol levels were greatly increased and were associated with severe hypokalaemia, EAS was hypothesized; total-body contrast-enhanced CT revealed the left adrenal mass (3 cm), which showed regular margins and heterogeneous enhancement (Fig. 2A and B) and measured 25 Hounsfield units. There was no evidence of adrenal hyperplasia in the contralateral adrenal gland. The adrenal mass showed intense tracer uptake on both 18F-FDG PET/CT (Fig. 2C and D), suggestive of adrenal malignancy or functioning tumour, and 68Ga-DOTATOC PET/CT (Fig. 3), which is characteristic of a neuroendocrine lesion. No other sites of suspicious tracer uptake were detected.

Figure 2View Full Size
Figure 2

Contrast-enhanced abdominal computed tomography showing a 3-cm left adrenal mass (arrow) with well-defined margins and inhomogeneus enhancement, deemed compatible with an adenoma (A, coronal view; B, axial view). The adrenal mass showed high uptake (SUV max: 7.3) on 18F-FDG PET/CT (C, coronal view; D, axial view).

Citation: Endocrinology, Diabetes & Metabolism Case Reports 2023, 2; 10.1530/EDM-22-0308

Figure 3View Full Size
Figure 3

The left adrenal mass displaying very high uptake (SUV max: 40) on 68Ga-DOTATOC PET/CT (arrow, axial view).

Citation: Endocrinology, Diabetes & Metabolism Case Reports 2023, 2; 10.1530/EDM-22-0308


Bisoprolol was withdrawn, and 24-h urinary catecholamine, metanephrine and normetanephrine levels proved significantly increased, as were chromogranin A levels (Table 1). In sum, an ACTH-secreting pheochromocytoma was suspected and the pituitary microadenoma was deemed a likely incidental finding.

The patient’s mental state worsened, fluctuating from sopor to restlessness, which required parenteral neuroleptics and restraint. An electroencephalogram revealed a specific slowdown of cerebral electrical activity. Following rachicentesis, the cerebrospinal fluid showed pleocytosis (lympho-monocytosis), whereas a culture test and polymerase chain reaction for common neurotropic agents were negative. The neurologist hypothesized a psycho-organic syndrome secondary to severe metabolic derangement. Intravenous ampicillin, acyclovir and B vitamins were empirically started. The patient was transferred to the subintensive unit, where a nasogastric tube and central venous catheter were inserted, and enteral nutrition was started.


Ketoconazole was started at a dosage of 200 mg twice daily; both cortisol and ACTH levels significantly decreased over a few days (Fig. 4), with a progressive decrease in glucose levels and normalization of potassium levels and BP on therapy. Subsequently, ketoconazole was titrated to 600 mg/day owing to a new increase in cortisol levels, which eventually normalized (Fig. 4). Of note, ACTH levels partially decreased on ketoconazole treatment (Fig. 4).

Figure 4View Full Size
Figure 4

ACTH and cortisol levels throughout the patient’s hospitalization and follow-up.

Citation: Endocrinology, Diabetes & Metabolism Case Reports 2023, 2; 10.1530/EDM-22-0308


Doxazosin 2 mg/day was added and the patient’s systolic BP blood settled at around 100 mm Hg; after a few days, bisoprolol was restarted. Contrast-enhanced MR showed a partial reduction of the hyperintense splenial lesion (Fig. 1E). Despite the severe clinical condition and the high risks of adrenal surgery, the patient’s relatives strongly requested the procedure and laparoscopic left adrenalectomy was planned. Alpha-blocker and fluid infusion were continued, ketoconazole was withdrawn the day before surgery, and a 100 mg IV bolus of hydrocortisone was administered just before the operation, followed by 200 mg/day, at first in continuous infusion, then as a 100 mg bolus every 8 h. After the removal of the left adrenal mass, noradrenaline infusion was required, owing to the occurrence of severe hypotension.

Outcome and follow-up

Pathology revealed a 2.5 cm reddish-brown encapsulated tumour, which was compatible with pheochromocytoma (Fig. 5A and B); ACTH immunostaining was positive in about 30% of tumour cells (Fig. 5C). This confirmed the diagnostic hypothesis of an ACTH-secreting pheochromocytoma. The tumour was stained for Chromogranin A (Fig. 5D). There were no signs of adrenal cortex hyperplasia in the resected gland. Thorough germinal genetic testing, comprising the commonest pheochromocytoma/paraganglioma genes: CDKN1B, KIF1B, MEN1, RET, SDHA, SDHB, SDHC, SDHD, SDHAF2 and TMEM127, was negative.

Figure 5View Full Size
Figure 5

Histological images of adrenal pheochromocytoma: the tumour is composed of well-defined nests of cells (‘zellballen’) (A; haematoxylin-eosin stain (HE), ×20) with pleomorphic nuclei with prominent nucleoli, basophilic or granular amphophilic cytoplasm (B; HE, ×40). The mitotic index was low: 1 mitosis per 30 high-power fields, and Ki-67 was 1%. On immunohistochemistry, cytoplasmatic ACTH staining was found in about 30% of tumour cells (C; ×20), whereas most tumour cells were stained for chromogranin A (D; ×20).

Citation: Endocrinology, Diabetes & Metabolism Case Reports 2023, 2; 10.1530/EDM-22-0308


One week after surgery ACTH levels had dropped to a low-normal value: 7 pg/mL, and cortisol levels (before morning hydrocortisone bolus administration) were normal: 14 µg/dL (Fig. 4). The patient’s clinical status slowly improved and the nasogastric tube was removed; intravenous hydrocortisone was carefully tapered until withdrawal and high-dose oral cortisone acetate (62.5 mg/day) was started. This dose was initially required since BP remained low (systolic: 90 mm Hg); thereafter, cortisone was reduced to 37.5 mg/day. Plasma cortisol levels before morning cortisone administration were reduced (Fig. 4). A new MR of the brain showed a further partial reduction of the splenial lesion (Fig. 1F). The patient was discharged with normal off-therapy BP and metabolic parameters.

During follow-up, she fully recovered, and BP and metabolic parameters remained normal. Gonadotropin levels became adequate for the patient’s age, and TSH and renin/aldosterone levels normalized (Table 1). Hypoadrenalism, however, persisted for more than 1 year; as the last hormonal evaluation, 16 months after surgery, showed normal baseline cortisol levels, the cortisone dose was tapered (12.5 mg/day) and further hormonal examination was scheduled (Table 1). ACTH and cortisol levels throughout the patient’s hospitalization and follow-up are shown in Fig. 4.


The diagnosis of EAS is challenging and requires two steps: confirmation of increased ACTH and cortisol levels and anatomic distinction from pituitary sources of ACTH overproduction. Besides metabolic derangements (hyperglycaemia, hypertension), EAS-related severe hypercortisolism may cause profound hypokalaemia (345).

In our patient, the combination of worsening hypertension, newly occurring diabetes and resistant hypokalaemia raised the suspicion of a common endocrine cause.

ACTH-dependent severe hypercortisolism was ascertained, and subsequent brain MR revealed a pituitary microadenoma.

The diagnosis of CS requires the combination of two abnormal test results: 24-h UFC, midnight salivary cortisol and/or abnormal 1 mg dexamethasone suppression testing (26). ACTH evaluation (low/normal-high) is fundamental to tailoring the imaging technique.

The very high cortisol levels found in our patient were unchanged after overnight dexamethasone testing, whereas UFC could not be assessed owing to the lack of compliance with urine collection. The accuracy of the UFC assays, however, may be impaired by cortisol precursors and metabolites. Salivary cortisol assessment was not performed since the specific assay is not available in our hospital.

The combination of ACTH-dependent severe hypercortisolism and hypokalaemia prompted us to suspect EAS. The differential diagnosis between pituitary and ectopic ACTH-dependent CS involves high-dose (8 mg) dexamethasone suppression testing, which has relatively low diagnostic accuracy (6). Owing to the patient’s very high cortisol levels and severe hypokalaemia, this testing was not performed, on account of the risks of administering corticosteroids in a patient already exposed to excessive levels (6). Furthermore, owing to the increase in ACTH levels observed after overnight dexamethasone testing, we postulated the possible occurrence of glucocorticoid-driven positive feedback on ACTH secretion, which has been described in EAS, including cases of pheochromocytoma (7).

Finally, in the case of EAS suspected of being caused by pheochromocytoma, we do not recommend performing high-dose dexamethasone suppression testing, owing to the risk of triggering a catecholaminergic crisis (8).

The dynamic tests commonly used to distinguish patients with EAS from those with Cushing’s disease are the CRH stimulation test and the desmopressin stimulation test, either alone or in combination with CRH testing (6). Owing to the rapid worsening of our patient’s condition, dynamic testing was not done; however, the clinical picture and hormonal/biochemical data were suggestive of EAS.

EAS is mainly (45–50%) due to neuroendocrine tumours, mostly of the lung (small-cell lung cancer and bronchial tumours), thymus or gastrointestinal tract; however, up to 20% of ACTH-secreting tumours remain occult (345).

ACTH-secreting pheochromocytomas are responsible for about 5% of cases of EAS (34910). Indeed, this rate ranges widely, from 2.5% (11) to 15% (12), according to the different case series. Patients with EAS due to pheochromocytoma present with severe CS, overt diabetes mellitus, hypertension and hypokalaemia (3); symptoms of catecholamine excess may be unapparent (3), making the diagnosis more challenging.

A recent review of 99 patients with ACTH- and/or CRH-secreting pheochromocytomas found that the vast majority displayed a Cushingoid phenotype (10); by contrast, another review of 24 patients reported that typical Cushingoid features were observed in only 30% of patients, whereas weight loss was a prevalent clinical finding (13). We hypothesized that the significant weight loss reported by our patient was largely due to the hypermetabolic state induced by catecholamines, which directly reduce visceral and subcutaneous fat, as recently reported (14).

Our patient showed no classic stigmata of CS, owing to the rapid onset of severe hypercortisolism (1013), whereas she had worsening hypertension and newly occurring diabetes mellitus, which were related to both cortisol and catecholamine hypersecretion; hypokalaemia was deemed to be secondary to severe hypercortisolism. Indeed, greatly increased cortisol levels act on the mineralocorticoid receptors of the distal tubule after saturating 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2, leading to hypokalaemia (4). Consequently, hypokalaemia is much more common (74–95% of patients) in EAS than in classic Cushing’s disease (10%) (3410). This apparent mineralocorticoid excess suppresses renin and aldosterone secretion, as was ascertained in our patient.

In this setting, the most effective way to manage hypokalaemia is to treat the hypercortisolism itself by administering immediate-acting steroidogenesis inhibitors, combined with potassium infusion and a mineralocorticoid receptor-antagonist (e.g. spironolactone) at an appropriate dosage (100–300 mg/day) (4).

In ACTH-secreting pheochromocytoma, cortisol hypersecretion potentiates catecholamine-induced hypertension by stimulating the phenol-etholamine-N-methyl–transferase enzyme, which transforms noradrenaline to adrenaline (4). Indeed, in our patient, the significant ketoconazole-induced reduction in cortisol secretion led to satisfactory BP control on antihypertensive drugs. After the biochemical diagnosis of pheochromocytoma, a selective alpha-blocker was added, and after a few days, a beta-blocker was restarted in order to control reflex tachycardia (15).

Our patient had greatly increased ACTH levels (>500 pg/mL) associated with very high cortisol levels (>60 µg/dL), which, together with the finding of hypokalaemia, prompted us to hypothesize EAS. With regard to these findings, ACTH levels are usually higher (>200 pg/mL) in patients with EAS than in those with CS due to a pituitary adenoma; however, considerable overlapping occurs (31116). Most patients with ACTH-secreting pheochromocytomas in those series had ACTH levels >300 pg/mL, and a few had normal ACTH levels (9), thus complicating the diagnosis. In addition, patients with EAS usually have higher cortisol levels than those with ACTH-secreting adenomas (311).

In our patient, the left adrenal mass was deemed the culprit of EAS, and owing to very high urinary metanephrine levels, a pheochromocytoma was suspected.

It can be assumed that the adrenal tumour, which was anamnestically reported as ‘non-secreting’, but on which only part of the initial hormonal data were available, was actually a pheochromocytoma at the time of the first diagnosis but displayed a silent clinical and hormonal behaviour. The mass subsequently showed significant uptake on both 18F-FDG PET/CT and 68Ga-DOTATOC PET/CT (45). It is claimed that 68Ga-DOTATOC PET/CT provides a high grade (90%) of sensitivity and specificity in the diagnosis of tumours that cause EAS (45); nevertheless, a recent systematic review reported much lower sensitivity (64%), which increased to 76% in histologically confirmed cases (17).

In patients with EAS, immediate-acting steroidogenesis inhibitors are required in order to achieve prompt control of severe hypercortisolism (4). Ketoconazole is one of the drugs of choice since it inhibits adrenal steroidogenesis at several steps. In our patient, ketoconazole rapidly reduced cortisol levels to normal values, without causing hepatic toxicity (4). Moreover, ketoconazole proved effective at a moderate dosage (600 mg/day), which falls within the mean literature range (1819). However, dosages up to 1200–1600 mg/day are sometimes required in severe cases (usually EAS) (1819). Speculatively, our results might reflect an enhanced inhibitory action of ketoconazole at the adrenal level, which was able to override the strong ectopic ACTH stimulation.

In addition, the finding that, following cortisol reduction, ACTH levels paradoxically decreased suggests an additive and direct effect of the drug. This effect has been observed in a few patients with EAS (20) and is supported by in vitro studies showing a direct anti-proliferative and pro-apoptotic effect of ketoconazole on ectopic ACTH secretion by tumours (21). Finally, the reduction in ACTH levels during treatment with steroidogenesis inhibitors prompts us to postulate the presence of glucocorticoid-driven positive feedback on ACTH secretion, as already described in neuroendocrine tumours (72021). The coexistence of EAS and ACTH-producing pituitary adenoma is very rare but must be taken into account. In our case, we deemed the pituitary mass found on MR to be a non-secreting microadenoma. This hypothesis was strengthened by the finding that, following exeresis of the ACTH-secreting pheochromocytoma, ACTH normalized, hypercortisolism vanished and pituitary function recovered. These findings suggest that: (i) altered pituitary function at the baseline was secondary to the inhibitory effect of hypercortisolism; (ii) the excessive production of cortisol was driven by ACTH overproduction outside the pituitary gland, specifically within the adrenal gland tumour.

In our patient, a few days after surgery, morning cortisol levels before hydrocortisone bolus administration were ‘normal’. Owing to both the half-life of hydrocortisone (8–12 h) and the supraphysiological dosage used, it is likely that a residual part of the drug, which cross-reacts in the cortisol assay, was still circulating at the time of blood collection, thus resulting in ‘normal’ cortisol values. Following the switch to oral cortisone, cortisol levels before therapy were low, thus confirming post-surgical hypocortisolism. Hypocortisolism remained throughout the first year after surgery, and glucocorticoid therapy was continued. Sixteen months after surgery, baseline cortisol levels returned to the normal range; cortisone therapy was therefore tapered and a further hormonal check was scheduled. Assessment of the cortisol response to ACTH stimulation testing would be helpful in order to check the resumption of the residual adrenal function.

A peculiar aspect of our case was the occurrence of a psycho-organic syndrome together with the finding of a splenial lesion on brain imaging, which was deemed secondary to metabolic injury. Indeed, the increased cortisol levels present in patients with Cushing’s disease are detrimental to the white matter of the brain, including the corpus collosum, causing subsequent clinical derangements (22).

Besides the direct effects of hypercortisolism, the splenial damage was also probably due to long-standing hypertension, worsened by newly occurring catecholamine hypersecretion and diabetes. Together with the normalization of cortisol and glycaemic levels, and of BP, a partial reduction in the splenial damage was observed on two subsequent MR examinations, and the patient’s neurological condition slowly improved until she fully recovered.

In our patient, thorough germinal genetic testing for the commonest pheochromocytoma/paraganglioma (PPGL) genes proved negative. Since approximately 40% of these tumours have germline mutations, genetic testing is recommended regardless of the patient’s age and family history. In the absence of syndromic, familial or metastatic presentation, the selection of genes for testing may be guided by the tumour location and biochemical phenotype.

Alterations of the PPGL genes can be divided into two groups: 10 genes (RET, VHL, NF1, SDHD, SDHAF2, SDHC, SDHB, SDHA, TMEM127 and MAX) that have well-defined genotype–phenotype correlations, thus allowing to tailor imaging procedures and medical management, and a group of other emerging genes, which lack established genotype–phenotype associations; for patients in whom mutations of genes belonging to this second group are detected, and hence hereditary predisposition is established, only general medical surveillance and family screening can be planned (2324).

In conclusion, our case highlights the importance of investigating patients with hypertension and metabolic derangements such as diabetes and hypokalaemia, since these findings may be a sign of newly occurring EAS, which, in rare cases, may be due to an ACTH-secreting pheochromocytoma. Since the additive effect of cortisol and catecholamine can cause dramatic clinical consequences, the possibility of an ACTH-secreting pheochromocytoma should be taken into account in the presence of an adrenal mass. EAS must be considered an endocrine emergency requiring urgent multi-specialist treatment. Surgery, whenever possible, is usually curative, and anatomic brain damage, as ascertained in our patient, may be at least partially reversible.

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.


This study did not receive any specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sector. The study was approved by the Local Ethics Committee (no: 732/2022).

Patient consent

The patient provided written informed consent.

Author contribution statement

All authors contributed equally to the conception, writing and editing of the manuscript. L Foppiani took care of the patient during hospitalization and in the outpatient department, performed the metabolic and endocrine work-up, conceived the study, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. MG Poeta evaluated the patient during hospitalization with regard to neurological problems and planned the related work-up (brain imaging procedures and rachicentesis). M Rutigliani analysed the histological specimens and performed immunohistochemical studies. S Parodi performed CT and MR scans and analysed the related images. U Catrambone performed the left adrenalectomy. L Cavalleri performed general anaesthesia and assisted the patient during the surgical and post-surgical periods. G Antonucci revised the manuscript. P Del Monte helped in the endocrine work-up, in the evaluation of hormonal data and in the revision of the manuscript. A Piccardo performed 18F-FDG PET/CT and analysed the related images.


The work of Prof Silvia Morbelli in performing and analysing 68Ga-DOTATOC PET/CT is gratefully acknowledged.




Cushing’s Syndrome in the Elderly



To evaluate whether age-related differences exist in clinical characteristics, diagnostic approach and management strategies in patients with Cushing’s syndrome included in the European Registry on Cushing’s Syndrome (ERCUSYN).


Cohort study.


We analyzed 1791 patients with CS, of whom 1234 (69%) had pituitary-dependent CS (PIT-CS), 450 (25%) adrenal-dependent CS (ADR-CS) and 107 (6%) had an ectopic source (ECT-CS). According to the WHO criteria, 1616 patients (90.2%) were classified as younger (<65 years) and 175 (9.8%) as older (>65 years).


Older patients were more frequently males and had a lower BMI and waist circumference as compared with the younger. Older patients also had a lower prevalence of skin alterations, depression, hair loss, hirsutism and reduced libido, but a higher prevalence of muscle weakness, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, venous thromboembolism and bone fractures than younger patients, regardless of sex (p<0.01 for all comparisons). Measurement of UFC supported the diagnosis of CS less frequently in older patients as compared with the younger (p<0.05). An extra-sellar macroadenoma (macrocorticotropinoma with extrasellar extension) was more common in older PIT-CS patients than in the younger (p<0.01). Older PIT-CS patients more frequently received cortisol-lowering medications and radiotherapy as a first-line treatment, whereas surgery was the preferred approach in the younger (p<0.01 for all comparisons). When transsphenoidal surgery was performed, the remission rate was lower in the elderly as compared with their younger counterpart (p<0.05).


Older CS patients lack several typical symptoms of hypercortisolism, present with more comorbidities regardless of sex, and are more often conservatively treated.



Thoughts? Discussion on the Cushing’s Help Message Boards

Complete and Sustained Remission of Hypercortisolism With Pasireotide Treatment of an Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (Acth)-Secreting Thoracic Neuroendocrine Tumour: an N-Of-1 Trial


N-of-1 trials can serve as useful tools in managing rare disease. We describe a patient presenting with a typical clinical picture of Cushing’s Syndrome (CS).

Further testing was diagnostic of ectopic Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH) secretion, but its origin remained occult. The patient was offered treatment with daily pasireotide at very low doses (300 mg bid), which resulted in clinical and biochemical control for a period of 5 years, when a pulmonary typical carcinoid was diagnosed and dissected. During the pharmacological treatment period, pasireotide was tentatively discontinued twice, with immediate flare of symptoms and biochemical markers, followed by remission after drug reinitiation.

This is the first report of clinical and biochemical remission of an ectopic CS (ECS) with pasireotide used as first line treatment, in a low-grade lung carcinoid, for a prolonged period of 5 years. In conclusion, the burden of high morbidity caused by hypercortisolism can be effectively mitigated with appropriate pharmacological treatment, in patients with occult tumors. Pasireotide may lead to complete and sustained remission of hypercortisolism, until surgical therapy is feasible. The expression of SSTR2 from typical carcinoids may be critical in allowing the use of very low drug doses for achieving disease control, while minimizing the risk of adverse events.


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


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


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

Case Presentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  1. Cohen JG, Kapp DS, Shin JY, et al.: Small cell carcinoma of the cervix: treatment and survival outcomes of 188 patients. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2010, 203:347.e1-6. 10.1016/j.ajog.2010.04.019
  2. Salvo G, Gonzalez Martin A, Gonzales NR, Frumovitz M: Updates and management algorithm for neuroendocrine tumors of the uterine cervix. Int J Gynecol Cancer. 2019, 29:986-95. 10.1136/ijgc-2019-000504
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  12. Fleseriu M, Biller BM, Findling JW, Molitch ME, Schteingart DE, Gross 😄 Mifepristone, a glucocorticoid receptor antagonist, produces clinical and metabolic benefits in patients with Cushing’s syndrome. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012, 97:2039-49. 10.1210/jc.2011-3350
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Ectopic Adrenocorticotropic Hormone-Secreting Pituitary Adenoma in the Clivus Region: A Case Report

Yan Zhang, Danrong Wu, Ruoqiu Wang, Min Luo, Dong Wang, Kaiyue Wang, Yi Ai, Li Zheng, Qiao Zhang, Lixin Shi

Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Guiqian International General Hospital, Guiyang, People’s Republic of China

Correspondence: Qiao Zhang; Lixin Shi, Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Guiqian International General Hospital, Guiyang, People’s Republic of China, Tel/Fax +86 851-86277666, Email;

Abstract: Ectopic pituitary adenoma (EPA) is a pituitary adenoma unrelated to the intrasellar component and is an extremely rare disease. EPA resembles typical pituitary adenomas in morphology, immunohistochemistry, and hormonal activity, and it may present with specific or non-specific endocrine manifestations. Here, we report a rare case of ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-secreting pituitary adenoma in the clival region. Only three patients with ACTH-secreting pituitary adenomas occurring in the clivus have been previously reported, and the present case was diagnosed as a clivus-ectopic ACTH-secreting pituitary macroadenoma. Thus, in addition to the more common organs, such as the lung, thymus, and pancreas, in the diagnosis of ectopic ACTH syndrome, special attention should be paid to the extremely rare ectopic ACTH-secreting pituitary adenoma of the clivus region.

Keywords: ectopic pituitary adenoma, Cushing’s syndrome, clivus, adrenocorticotropic hormone, endocrine


The diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome (CS), particularly its localization diagnosis, has always been a challenge in clinical practice.1,2 Endogenous CS can be divided into adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-dependent and non-ACTH dependent with the former accounting for 70% of CS cases. Ectopic ACTH syndrome accounts for 5–10% of CS cases, and its lesions are mainly located in the lungs, thymus, pancreas, and the thyroid gland.3 Finding such lesions in non-pituitary intracranial regions is extremely rare, and ectopic ACTH in the clivus region is even rarer. To date, less than 60 cases of ectopic ACTH-secreting pituitary adenomas have been reported,4 and determining their localization is a formidable challenge in CS diagnosis. It is difficult to make an accurate and prompt diagnosis of ectopic ACTH-secreting pituitary adenoma caused by hypercortisolism based on its clinical manifestation, routine laboratory tests, and radiologic examinations.1,4 Ectopic pituitary adenomas (EPAs) are mainly concentrated in the sphenoid sinus, suprasellar region, and cavernous sinus, and rare regions include the clivus, ethmoid sinus, and nasal cavity.5 A literature review showed that only three cases of primary EPA in the clivus region have been reported worldwide.6–8 Recently, we diagnosed a patient with ectopic ACTH-secreting pituitary macroadenoma in the clivus region that was confirmed by surgery and immunohistochemistry.

Case Presentation

A 53-year-old female patient sought medical attention at our hospital for hypertension, headache, and dizziness with a blood pressure as high as 180/100 mmHg. Her medical history showed that she had developed similar symptoms 2 years ago. At that time, she had hypertension (180/100 mmHg), headache, and dizziness, and she was treated with amlodipine (5 mg per day), benazepril hydrochloride (10 mg per day), and metoprolol tartrate (50 mg per day). The patient was not hospitalized for treatment and did not undergo systemic examination. Three months before admission, the patient had a thoracic vertebrae fracture caused by moving heavy objects. One month before admission, she had a bilateral rib fracture due to falling on flat ground. Her physical examination results were as follows: blood pressure, 160/85 mmHg; height, 147 cm; weight, 55.2 kg; and body mass index (BMI), 25.54 kg/m2. In the physical examination, moon facies, buffalo hump, concentric obesity, facial plethora, and large patches of ecchymosis at the blood sampling site were observed. Purple striae were absent below the axilla, abdomen, and limbs. Her hematological examination results were as follows: cortisol (COR) rhythm with 33.52 µg/dL (reference range: 4.26–24.85) at 8:00 AM, 34.3 µg/dL at 4:00 PM, and 33.14 µg/dL at 12:00 AM; 1 mg dexamethasone overnight suppression test indicated 22.21 µg/dL COR at 8:00 AM; 24 h urine COR was 962.16 µg/24 h (reference range: 50–437 µg/24 h); 8:00 AM ACTH at two different times was 74 pg/mL and 90.8 pg/mL (reference range: <46); high-dose dexamethasone suppression test (HDDST) was 21.44 µg/dL COR (serum COR level was not suppressed by more than 50%); serum potassium was 3.38 mmol/L (reference range: 3.5–5.5); insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) was 106.6 ng/mL (reference range: 84–236); serum luteinizing hormone (LH) was <0.07 IU/L (reference range: 1.9–12.5); serum follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) was 0.37 IU/L (reference range: 2.5–10.2); prolactin (PRL), testosterone, progesterone, and estradiol test results were normal; FT4 was 8.25 pmol/L (reference range: 10.44–24.38); TSH was 1.116 mIU/L (reference range: 0.55–4.78); oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) indicated that fasting blood glucose was 6.3 mmol/L and 2-h blood glucose was 18.72 mmol/L; and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) was 7.1%. A bone mineral density test suggested osteoporosis (dual energy X-rays: L1-L4 T values were −3.4).

Magnetic resonance (MR) scans were performed using a SIGNA Pioneer 3.0T (GE Healthcare, Waukesha, WI, USA), and computed tomography (CT) scans were performed using a 256 slice CT scanner (Revolution CT; GE Healthcare, Waukesha, WI, USA). The enhanced MR scan of the sellar lesion showed a soft tissue mass with abnormal signals in the occipital bone clivus. T1WI showed an isointense signal, and T2WI showed an isointense/slightly hyperintense signal in a large area of approximately 30 mm × 46 mm. The lesion extended anteriorly to completely fill the entire sphenoidal sinus, and it was in a close proximity to the right internal carotid arteries. Significant invasion, liquefaction, and necrosis were not observed in the bilateral cavernous sinuses. Pituitary gland morphology was normal with a superoinferior diameter of 3.14 mm, and the pituitary gland was located in the center. An occipital bone clival space-occupying lesion was considered with a tendency of low malignancy and a possibility of chordoma (Figure 1A–C). Non-enhanced high-resolution CT scans of the nasal sinuses showed osteolytic destruction, and a soft tissue mass was observed in the occipital bone clivus. The mass had a large area of 20 mm × 30 mm × 46 mm (Figure 1D). Enhanced CT of the adrenals showed bilateral adrenal gland hyperplasia.

Figure 1 (A) MR T1+T2 scan (transverse view). MR T1 scan (left) shows the soft tissue mass of the occipital clivus (white arrow), and MR T2 scan (right) shows that the right internal carotid artery, cavernous sinus, and tumor are within close proximity to each other (white arrow). (B) MR T1 enhanced scan (sagittal view) shows clear demarcation between normal pituitary gland and mass (white arrow). (C) MR T2 scan (sagittal view) shows that the pituitary fossa is normally present (white arrow). (D) CT (sagittal view) shows bony destruction of dorsum sellae, clivus, and sphenoid sinus by mass (white arrow).

Bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling (IPSS) combined with a desmopressin stimulation test had the following results: baseline ACTH at left inferior petrosal sinus/periphery (IPS/P), 5.4; post-stimulation IPS/P, 3.42; stimulation corrected (ACTHPRL) IPS/P, 2.8; right baseline IPS/P, 1.64; post-stimulation IPS/P, 9.34; and stimulation corrected IPS/P, 6.92. The left inferior petrosal sinus was the dominant side (Table 1).

Table 1 Bilateral Inferior Petrosal Sinus Sampling Combined with Desmopressin Stimulation Test

The patient underwent endoscopic transsphenoidal clival lesion resection surgery, and the postoperative pathology test results showed EPA (Figure 2). The immunohistochemistry staining results were as follows: CK (+), SYN (+), CgA (+), ACTH (+), growth hormone (GH) (−), LH (−), TSH (−), PRL (−), FSH (−), and Ki-67 (<1% +). The COR level at 10 days after surgery was 15.87 µg/dL, and the ACTH level was 31.37 pg/mL (Table 2).

Table 2 Changes in COR and ACTH Levels During Course of Treatment
Figure 2 Pathological diagnosis of (clivus) ectopic pituitary adenoma. (A) Pituitary adenoma revealing a trabecular and nested structure revealing vascular invasion (hematoxylin and eosin (HE) stain, 200x) composed of two distinct types of cells. (B) ACTH expression in the EPA (200x, ACTH-antibody, Dako).

After admission, her blood and urine COR levels were significantly elevated, and a qualitative diagnosis of CS was obtained. Etiological examination found that ACTH was also significantly elevated, suggesting that the CS was ACTH dependent. The HDDST results showed that the serum COR level was not suppressed by more than 50% and was accompanied by hypokalemia, suggesting that the ACTH-dependent CS may be ectopic ACTH syndrome. Ectopic ACTH syndrome is relatively rare, and the lesions are caused by non-pituitary tumors. No lesions were identified in the lung, thymus, pancreas, and thyroid of our patient. Regarding the IPSS examination, the IPS/P ratio was greater than 2, which suggested that the ectopic ACTH was located intracranially and not at the periphery. Radiologic testing suggested that the pituitary structure was normal and that a space-occupying lesion in the clivus region was present. Therefore, ectopic ACTH-secreting adenoma in the clivus region was considered, and postoperative pathological biopsy was used to confirm the diagnosis.


EPA is an extremely rare disease that occurs outside of the sella turcica, and it is not linked to the intrasellar pituitary. The morphology, immunohistochemistry, and hormone activity of EPAs are similar to typical pituitary adenomas. EPAs can manifest as specific or non-specific endocrine disorders, and they account for 0.48% of all pituitary adenomas.9 The pathogenesis of EPA is still currently unknown. It is generally considered that during the development of the anterior pituitary lobe, the incompletely degraded Rathke cleft cyst remnants of the Rathke pouch lead to the formation of EPAs in the nasopharynx, sphenoid, and clivus.10,11 EPA is rare in China. Zhu et al5 recorded 14,357 pituitary gland patients in the last 20 years; of these patients, only 14 were diagnosed with EPA (0.098% of all cases), but none of the lesions originated from the clivus region. Previous literature reviews4,5 revealed that non-functioning EPAs in the clivus region are the most common (50%); the most common hormone-secreting functional adenomas are PRL adenomas and GH adenomas, which account for 25.0% and 21.4% of EPAs, respectively, whereas ACTH-secreting EPAs are extremely rare and only account for 3.6% of cases.

The postoperative pathological and immunohistochemical results of the tumor tissue in the patient demonstrated that it was an ectopic ACTH-secreting pituitary macroadenoma in the clivus region. Most EPAs are microadenomas (diameter <1 cm), except those in the clivus region, which are macroadenomas.5 Adenoma size generally does not affect the patient’s clinical and biochemical characteristics, and it may be related to tumor location or extension.12 Encasement of the internal carotid artery is a characteristic feature of EPA invasion into surrounding tissues.5 Encasement of the right internal carotid artery by the tumor was also observed in our patient. Therefore, surgery cannot completely remove the tumor and may ultimately affect surgical outcomes, and radiotherapy may even be required in the future. The serum COR and ACTH levels of our patient were evaluated 10 days after surgery. Although the levels were significantly lower than those before the surgery, the COR level was still significantly higher than the cutoff value of 1 µg/dL,13,14 suggesting that the patient may not have complete remission due to the incomplete tumor resection in the area adjacent to the carotid artery during surgery. Another feature that was observed in our patient was bone invasion. Because the clivus is composed of abundant cancellous bone that is connected to surrounding bone structures, EPAs or other tumors may cause bone destruction and affect the sphenoidal sinus and cavernous sinus, which is also consistent with literature reports.15,16

Due to the low incidence of EPAs, most EPA cases are reported as case reports in the literature. We performed an English literature search using the PubMed and Web of Science Core Collection databases with the following predetermined terms: “Cushing’s syndrome”, “pituitary adenomas”, “clivus”, “ectopic pituitary adenoma”, and “adrenocorticotropic”. The literature was included if it met the following criteria: (i) the confirmed diagnosis of CS or ectopic ACTH syndrome was described in the literature; (ii) the diagnosis of EPA was confirmed by postoperative inspection; and (iii) EPA occurred in the clivus. After excluding cases of clival invasion from other sites, we found only three reports of ectopic ACTH-secreting adenoma in the clivus region,6–8 and they were all female patients. Ortiz-Suarez and Erickson6 employed transfrontal craniotomy to demonstrate that the ectopic ACTH-secreting adenoma was an extension of extrasellar lesion to the clivus. In a case report by Pluta et al,7 the patient was found to have cavernous sinus and clival ACTH-positive tumors through transphenoidal surgery. In a case report by Aftab et al,8 the patient only presented a space-occupying lesion with unilateral vision loss; the patient was initially diagnosed with clival chordoma, but the postoperative results supported the diagnosis of EPA. Based on preoperative imaging, the possibility of chordoma was also considered to be high in our patient. We combined the clinical manifestation and laboratory test results of the patient and considered the etiology of CS to conclude that the patient had clival ectopic ACTH-secreting adenoma instead of chordoma.

Hormone tests in our patient suggested secondary pituitary-gonadal axis and decreased pituitary-thyroid axis function. These changes in endocrine function may be due to pituitary suppression by hypercortisolism. After surgery, the corresponding markers recovered, indicating that the suppression was transient. The patient has a history of fracture and a bone mineral density suggestive of osteoporosis, which may also be associated with CS hypercortisolemia.

Treatment modalities for EPA include adenoma resection surgery, radiotherapy, and drugs. The first-line recommended treatment is surgical resection. Craniotomy is considered the surgical procedure of choice for EPA, and endoscopic transsphenoidal surgery (TSS) is considered a feasible method for preserving pituitary function while simultaneously treating EPA. However, due to limitations with the surgical operation space, there are still concerns whether sufficient exploration and effective tumor resection can be achieved.17 Because there are few case reports of such patients, the long-term outcomes of these two surgical procedures require further validation. Due to differences in EPA sites and functions, the efficacy of surgery also differs. Zhu et al5 reported that compared to the radical resection rate of sphenoidal sinus and cavernous sinus EPA (72.3% and 73.3%, respectively), the radical resection rate of clival EPA is only 45.0%, and this difference is statistically significant.

The three clival EPA patients described in the three relevant publications6–8 all showed significant improvements in postoperative signs, symptoms, and hormone levels after complete surgical removal of the lesions or combined with radiation therapy. In our patient, however, radical resection of the tumor could not be achieved due to the close proximity of the tumor mass to the right internal carotid artery, and surgery could not be used to achieve complete remission, which is similar to the case reported by Zhu et al.5 For such patients, radiotherapy can be considered as a second-line treatment for EPA. To control hormone levels, drugs and bilateral adrenalectomy are also treatment options.5,18,19


EPA is a rare disease, and clival EPA is even rarer. From the entire diagnosis and treatment course, this unique and rare EPA case was preliminarily diagnosed through a comprehensive hormone panel and IPSS, and it was confirmed by pathology and immunohistochemistry after surgery. In the diagnosis of ectopic ACTH syndrome, attention should also be paid to extremely rare pituitary ectopic sites, such as the sphenoid sinuses, parasellar region, and the clivus, in addition to common sites, such as the lungs, thymus, pancreas, and thyroid.

Data Sharing Statement

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors without undue reservation.

Informed Consent Statement

Prior written permission was obtained from the patient for treatment as well as for the preparation of this manuscript and for publication. Our institution approved the publication of the case details.


We would like to thank the patient and her family.

Author Contributions

All authors made a significant contribution to the work reported, whether that is in the conception, study design, execution, acquisition of data, analysis and interpretation, or in all these areas; took part in drafting, revising or critically reviewing the article; gave final approval of the version to be published; have agreed on the journal to which the article has been submitted; and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work.


There is no funding to report.


The authors report no conflicts of interest in this work.


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