Medullary thyroid cancer with ectopic Cushing’s syndrome: A multicentre case series

First published: 06 November 2021



Ectopic Cushing′s syndrome (ECS) induced by medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) is rare, and data on clinical characteristics, treatment and outcome are limited.


Retrospective cohort study in three German and one Swiss referral centres.


Eleven patients with MTC and occurrence of ECS and 22 matched MTC patients without ECS were included.


The primary endpoint of this study was the overall survival (OS) in MTC patients with ECS versus 1:2 matched MTC patients without ECS.


The median age at diagnosis of ECS was 59 years (range: 35–81) and the median time between initial diagnosis of MTC and diagnosis of ECS was 29 months (range: 0–193). Median serum morning cortisol was 49 µg/dl (range: 17–141, normal range: 6.2–18). Eight (73%) patients received treatment for ECS. Treatment of ECS consisted of bilateral adrenalectomy (BADX) in four (36%) patients and adrenostatic treatment in eight (73%) patients. One patient received treatment with multityrosine kinase inhibitor (MKI) to control hypercortisolism. All patients experienced complete resolution of symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome and biochemical control of hypercortisolism. Patients with ECS showed a shorter median OS of 87 months (95% confidence interval [95% CI]: 64–111) than matched controls (190 months, 95% CI: 95–285). Of the nine deaths, four were related to progressive disease (PD). Four patients showed PD as well as complications and comorbidities of hypercortisolism before death.


This study shows that ECS occurs in advanced stage MTC and is associated with a poor prognosis. Adrenostatic treatment and BADX were effective systemic treatment options in patients with MTC and ECS to control their hypercortisolism. MKI treatment achieved complete remission of hypercortisolism and sustained tumour control in one treated case.


Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) arises from calcitonin-producing parafollicular C-cells of the thyroid gland and accounts for 2%–5% of all thyroid malignancies.1 In about 25% of cases, MTC occurs in a hereditary manner as a part of multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2) caused by oncogenic germline REarranged during Transfection (RET)-mutations. Up to 65% of patients with the sporadic disease have somatic RET-mutations, among which RETM918T is the most common and associated with adverse outcome.25 At diagnosis, cervical lymph node metastases are present in about half of patients and distant metastases in around 10% of MTC patients.6 While the localized disease has a 10-year disease-specific survival (DSS) of 96%, 10-year DSS is only 44% in cases with distant metastases.79

Besides calcitonin and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), C-cells may also ectopically secrete corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) or adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Cushing’s syndrome (CS) due to ectopic CRH or ACTH secretion induced by MTC is rare and data on clinical characteristics, treatment and outcome are limited and mostly from case studies. In a retrospective study of 1640 adult patients with MTC, ectopic Cushing’s syndrome (ECS) due to ACTH secretion was reported in only 0.6% of patients, whereas previous studies reported a higher prevalence, possibly due to selection bias.1012 ECS mostly occurs in metastatic cases and significantly impairs prognosis: around 50% of the mortality in patients with ECS has been attributed to complications of hypercortisolism.12 Diagnosis of ECS is difficult and includes a combination of clinical assessment, dynamic biochemical tests (e.g., 24 h urinary-free cortisol, midnight salivary cortisol, 1 and 8 mg dexamethasone suppression test), inferior petrosal sinus sampling (IPSS) and multimodal imaging.13

This retrospective study aims at describing clinical characteristics, treatment and prognosis of 11 patients with MTC and ECS at 3 German and 1 Swiss tertiary care centres and to illustrate effective treatment in this ultrarare condition.


2.1 Setting

This registry study was conducted as part of the German Study Group for Rare Malignant Tumours of the Thyroid and Parathyroid Glands. Data were obtained from records of patients diagnosed with MTC between 1990 and 2020 and concomitant ECS diagnosed between 1995 and 2020 in three German and one Swiss tertiary care centres. All patients provided written informed consent and the study was approved by the ethics committee of the University of Würzburg (96/13) and subsequently by the ethics committees of all participating centres.

2.2 Data acquisition

Eligible patients were 11 adults with histopathological evidence of MTC and the diagnosis of ECS at initial diagnosis (synchronous CS) or during the course of disease (metachronous CS). This group was matched with 22 patients with histologically confirmed MTC without evidence of ECS by sex, age at MTC diagnosis (±5 years), tumour stage and calcitonin doubling time (CDT).

The diagnosis of ECS was established by standard endocrine testing according to international guideline recommendations,14 local good clinical practice procedures and laboratory assays in participating centres. The primary endpoint of this study was the assessment of overall survival (OS) in MTC patients with ECS from the date of MTC-diagnosis and the date of ECS-diagnosis versus matched MTC patients without ECS (1:2 ratio). The secondary endpoints were assessment of progression-free survival (PFS) and efficacy of multityrosine kinase inhibitors (MKIs) treatment (based on routine clinical imaging in analogy to RECIST 1.0 and 1.1). Treatment and follow-up of patients were performed according to the local practice of participating centres. Efficacy was assessed locally by imaging (positron emission tomography/computed tomography [PET/CT], CT, magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] of the liver and bone scintigraphy) and measurement of serum calcitonin and CEA levels every 3–6 months. Clinical data were recorded by trained personnel at all sites. Tumour stage was defined according to the American Joint Committee on Cancer TNM classification, seventh edition,15 based on clinical and histopathological assessments.

2.3 Statistical analysis

PFS and OS probabilities were estimated using the Kaplan–Meier method. The log-rank test was not used to test the difference between the study group and the control group due to the paired sample design. For the comparison of nonnormally distributed data, we used the Mann–Whitney U test. p Values less than .05 were considered statistically significant. Statistical analyses were performed with SPSS Version 26 (IBM).


3.1 Clinical characteristics of patients with ECS

Eleven patients (five male and six female) with histopathological evidence of MTC with ECS in three German and one Swiss tertiary care centres were included. Twenty-two controls with histologically confirmed MTC without the diagnosis of ECS matched by sex, age at MTC diagnosis (±5 years), tumour stage and CDT were enroled. Baseline clinical characteristics of the study population and the control group are shown in Table 1. In patients with ECS, median follow-up from initial MTC diagnosis was 6.3 years (range: 0–17) and median follow-up from diagnosis of ECS 7 months (range: 0–110). Median age at initial diagnosis of sporadic MTC was 45 (range: 31–67, n = 7) and 52 years (range: 35–55, n = 3) for patients with germline RET mutant MTC.


Paraneoplastic Cushing Syndrome in Gastrointestinal Neuroendocrine Tumour


Ectopic production of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) by gastrointestinal neuroendocrine tumours (NETs) is relatively uncommon. We report a rare case of a liver metastatic G1 low-grade NET of the intestine that induced hypercortisolism after surgical resection. A 50-year-old man was admitted for an intestinal obstruction caused by a tumour of the intestine. Paraneoplastic Cushing syndrome was diagnosed more than a year later following the appearance of cushingoid symptoms, despite stable disease according to RECIST criteria but chromogranin A increase. Ketoconazole and sandostatin medical treatment and liver chemoembolization never managed to control the hypercortisolism unlike the bilateral adrenalectomy. The identification and effective management of this uncommon statement of ectopic ACTH secretion is important to improve the patient’s prognosis and quality of life.

© 2021 The Author(s). Published by S. Karger AG, Basel


Neuroendocrine tumours (NETs) are a relatively rare and heterogeneous tumour type, comprising about 2% of all malignancies [1]. The gastrointestinal (GI) and pancreatic tract and lungs are the most common primary tumour sites, with 62%–67% and 22%–27%, respectively, and within the GI tract, most of them occurs in the small bowel or the appendix [23]. Since 2010 and the latest version of the WHO classification, GI and pancreatic NETs are subdivided according to their mitotic count or Ki67 index, associated with cellular proliferation. Well-differentiated NETs are relatively low-aggressive tumours, with a rather indolent disease course and a good prognosis in most patients. Nevertheless, some NETs with a low-grade histologic appearance may behave aggressively with rapid growth and metastasis proliferation [45]. Because of this low incidence, tumour heterogeneity, lack of awareness, and non-uniform classifications, GI and pancreatic NETs remain a poorly understood disease, and delayed diagnosis is common among these [67].

Paraneoplastic Cushing syndrome (PCS) represents approximately 10% of all Cushing syndrome and is frequently caused by NETs [89]. While PCS is common with lung NETs (>50% of PCS), this paraneoplastic syndrome is relatively uncommon associated with GI NETs and only described in isolated case reports. Nevertheless, knowing the indolent course of low-grade NETs and the clinical symptoms of cushingoid appearance resulting from prolonged exposure to excessive glucocorticoids, PCS is typically present before cancer detection [8], and surgery is curative in >80% of patients [1011]. For the remaining 20%, effective management is necessary, given the risk of infections and thromboembolic events due to the immunosuppressive effect and the hypercoagulable state [11]. For patients with medically unmanageable hypercortisolism, synchronous bilateral adrenalectomy is an effective and safe treatment [12]. We describe a case of typical metastatic intestinal NETs associated with a late ectopic Cushing syndrome, which was managed with synchronous bilateral adrenalectomy.

Case Presentation

We describe the case of a 50-year-old man admitted to the emergency department for an intestinal obstruction caused by an intestinal tumour. Anatomopathological analysis of the resected specimen and lymph nodes revealed an NET. Three nodes out of 12 removed were positive for cancer localization. The tumour presented serosa infiltration and perineural, vascular and lymphatics vessel invasion. The primary location could not be confirmed histologically between the ileum and appendix. Our diagnosis was pT3N1 according to the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) classification. An immunohistochemistry analysis revealed a Ki-67 expression <2%. Mitotic count/10 was 2 × 10 high-power fields, and cells showed well differentiation. So, according to the WHO classification, this tumour was classified as G1 NET. 111In-Octreoscan (Octreoscan) revealed lymph node and multifocal liver metastases.

After discussion with a multidisciplinary team, the patient was started treatment with somatostatin analogue. Twelve months later, although computerized tomography (CT) scan showed stable disease, patient physical examination revealed facial puffiness with fatty tissue deposits in the face, generalized oedema, muscle weakness, and wasting. He also reports polydipsia, insomnia, and balance disorders. We noted however a discreet increase in the chromogranin A (CgA) value, from 55 ng/mL to 199 ng/mL (with a diagnostic value of 1,700 ng/mL) without an increase in the urinary 5-HIAA level.

Laboratory tests revealed an 8.00 a.m. cortisol level of 888 nmol/L, an adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) level of 96.5 pg/mL, and 24-h urine free cortisol of 1,494 μg. A high-dose dexamethasone suppression test showed no cortisol suppression. The patient was diagnosed with ACTH-dependent Cushing syndrome. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain showed a normal pituitary gland, confirming the PCS diagnosis. Ketoconazole treatment associated with sandostatin alleviated hypercortisolism within a month, with a cortisol level within normal laboratory ranges. Two months later, secondary diabetes mellitus was discovered and managed effectively with insulin glargine.

Four months later and despite stable disease according to RECIST criteria, cortisol levels increased considerably, with cortisol values similar to diagnosis without ketoconazole increased response. Moreover, diabetes became complicated to manage. Also we noted an increase in CgA value, from 165 ng/mL to 393 ng/mL. Chemoembolization was performed on liver metastases without any effectiveness on hypercortisolism. Adding targeted therapy with mTOR inhibitor (everolimus) was considered. Nevertheless, given the magnitude of drug interaction, the use of everolimus should be avoided in ketoconazole-treated patients, or vice versa.

Considering the risks for the patient and expected benefits, synchronous bilateral adrenalectomy was performed. It resolved hypercortisolism and permitted to stabilize diabetes (shown in Fig. 1). Everolimus treatment has been started 1 month after the surgery. Twelve months after everolimus initiation, the patient CT scan still showed stable disease, according to RECIST criteria and a stable CgA value.

Fig. 1.

Histogram of 8:00 a.m. plasmatic cortisol, ACTH, 24-h urinary cortisol, and CgA levels from Cushing syndrome diagnosis to bilateral adrenalectomy. ACTH, adrenocorticotropic-hormone; ULN, upper limit of normal; 8:00 a.m. cortisol normal ranges (172–497) nmol/L; ACTH normal ranges (7–63) ng/L; 24-h urinary cortisol normal ranges (20–50) µg/24 h; CgA normal ranges (27–94) ng/mL. ACTH, adrenocorticotropic hormone; CgA, chromogranin A.



Approximately 10% of Cushing syndrome is paraneoplastic and may result in many tumours, preferentially lung cancer (50–60% of time), with 1–2% of lung NET and about 5% of small-cell lung cancer associated with Cushing syndrome [81113]. Others reported sites of malignancy include the thymus, thyroid, pancreas, and adrenals. Except for the pancreas, PCS secondary to GI NET (appendix, duodenum, ileum, colon, and anal canal) is extremely rare, and only isolated case reports have described this syndrome.

In paraneoplastic endocrine syndrome cases, symptoms are due to secretion of hormones by malignant cells or secondary to the impact of neoplastic cell antibodies on normal cells. PCS arises from tumour secretion of ACTH or CRH, resulting in production and release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. Unlike paraneoplastic endocrine syndromes that present most of the time after cancer diagnosis, PCS typically appears before cancer detection and similarly relapse may herald tumour recurrence [1114]. In our case, no symptoms related to hypercortisolaemia led the patient to consult before obstructive syndrome. The occurrence of hypercortisolaemia 12 months after diagnosis was not linked to imaging progression according to RECIST criteria. However, concurrent CgA increase should be noted.

Commonly measured tumour markers in NETs include serum CgA and 5-HIAA, the final secreted product of serotonin, levels in a 24-h urine sample. Elevated levels of circulating of CgA have been associated with almost all types of NETs, including those arising from GI tract but also pheochromocytomas [15]. The clinical sensitivity of CgA has been demonstrated to depend on the threshold cut-off, on NET primary location, and on the spread of the disease, especially the existence of liver metastases [16]. Indeed, a higher sensitivity was found in patients with midgut NETs and liver metastases, as in our patient. Moreover, with our cut-off level (94 ng/mL) approximately the same as used in 2 studies [1617], sensitivity was 62%–67% and specificity was 96%. Furthermore, Korse et al. [18]. postulated that serum CgA was superior to urinary 5-HIAA concerning the prognostic relevance in the follow-up of metastatic midgut NETs. These data are consistent with our patient outcomes for which 5-HIAA was not increased unlike CgA. However, although CgA is currently the best available tumour marker indicating tumour recurrence [19], there are many comorbidities and drugs that may increase CgA levels and lead to false-positive results. As a result, it is questionable whether the CgA increase in our patient was not rather secondary to cardiovascular or GI disorders, inflammatory diseases, diabetes, or even food intake before CgA measurement [162021]. Similarly, many drugs, foods, natural stimulants, and comorbidities may alter the level of 24-h urinary 5-HIAA, positively or negatively.

Cushing syndrome is due to hypercortisolism. Two-thirds of endogenous elevated cortisol is caused by ACTH-secreting pituitary tumours, 15% by primary adrenal glands and 15% by ectopic PCS [22]. The first step is laboratory tests with cortisol and ACTH levels to differentiate ACTH-dependent or ACTH-independent Cushing syndrome. When ACTH-dependent Cushing syndrome is confirmed, differentiation between PCS and Cushing disease can be difficult. The high-dose dexamethasone suppression tests help distinguish Cushing disease from PCS, as in our presented case. Indeed, no decrease in blood cortisol during the high-dose test and high ACTH levels are consistent with PCS. Nevertheless, 21–26% of ectopic ACTH secretions have a positive suppression, about one-third of MRI scans for pituitary adenoma exclusion are false-negative, and occult ectopic ACTH-secreting tumours have been described in about 15% of adult patients [2326]. In our patient, both MRI and high-dose dexamethasone suppression test are consistent with PCS. The gold standard diagnosis – inferior petrosal sinus sampling – that demonstrates gradient in ACTH concentration between the affected side sinus and the periphery in pituitary lesions, whereas the absence of this gradient in PCS was not performed because of its invasiveness and its neurological accident risks [27]. Note however although the ACTH level at diagnosis suggests ACTH-dependent Cushing syndrome, the occurrence of adrenal metastasis few months after the diagnosis and explaining the sudden deregulation could be possible and consistent with the CgA increase but refuted by adrenal gland histology.

Clinical features of PCS depend on the source of production and rate of ACTH synthesis. Characteristically, these patients have severe hypercortisolaemia, leading to low serum potassium levels, diabetes, generalized infections, hypertension, and psychosis. To confirm whether rapidly growing tumours produce sudden onset of symptoms, gradual physical signs are noticed in slower growing tumours [28], as for our patient for whom we suppose that liver metastases started to produce ACTH ectopically. An option for non-resectable neuroendocrine liver lesions, given that the majority of them are hypervascular, is hepatic directed procedures, which include ablative therapy, transarterial embolization, transarterial chemoembolization, and selective internal radiation therapy with yttrium-90 microspheres [29]. Hepatic artery chemoembolization for the treatment of liver metastases from NETs is useful for tumour size reduction and symptom palliation and can be associated with prolonged survival [30]. Nevertheless, chemoembolization on NET liver metastasis-producing ACTH is not well documented. Given the fact that hepatic metastasis chemoembolization was ineffective on hypercortisolism and despite Octreoscan results, there is still a small chance that he harbours somewhere else metastasis-producing ACTH. Indeed, PET-CT imaging with 68Gallium-DOTATATE has recently replaced Octreoscan as the new gold standard with a higher detection rate in GI NETs [31].

Hypercortisolism requires a prompt therapeutic management to reduce the risk of development of a potentially fatal emergency. Synchronous bilateral adrenalectomy is an effective and safe treatment for patient with unmanageable ACTH-dependent hypercortisolism [12]. Taking account of the risks to the patient and the lack of effective medical therapeutic possibilities, we have chosen to perform this surgery.

According to the recent consensus guidelines for digestive NETs of the jejunum and ileum, the 5-year survival rate is 36% in patients with distant metastases [32]. Several analyses suggest a significant survival benefit in patients who received surgery for the primary tumour even in the presence of metastasis [33]. Moreover, the impact of liver resection or liver-directed therapies on the survival of patients with liver metastasis is unclear with conflicting results [33]. PCS can cause a poor clinical outcome due to various complications with an increase in susceptibility to infection and GI ulceration. Indeed, for small-cell lung cancer and gynaecological malignancies, PCS is associated with accelerated decompensation and poorer response to chemotherapy (Mitchell et al. [14]). Whether these findings can be extrapolated to other malignancies is unknown. However, an early diagnosis and a prompt management can improve patient outcomes through earlier cancer diagnosis or relapse and thus earlier administration of treatment, as was the case with our patient.


We report an uncommon case with PCS due to a GI NET. The identification of this rare cause of ectopic ACTH secretion can be challenging, but aggressive management is critical to prevent or decelerate the acute decompensation of cancer patients and prolong overall survival. In this context, synchronous bilateral adrenalectomy may be the unique answer.

Statement of Ethics

Written informed consent was obtained from the patient for publication of this case report and any accompanying images. A copy of the written consent is available for review by the editor-in-chief of this journal.

Conflict of interest Statement

The authors have no conflict of interest to declare.

Funding Sources

No funding was received for this study.

Author Contributions

L.M. conceived the study and participated in data collection. L.V. performed the literature search and wrote the manuscript. L.M. and R.B. critically revised the manuscript for important intellectual content. All authors read and approved the final manuscript version.

Data Availability Statement

The datasets used and analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


Adrenalectomy in ectopic Cushing’s syndrome: A retrospective cohort study from a tertiary care centre

First published: 13 August 2021


Neuroendocrine neoplasms (NENs) causing ectopic Cushing’s syndrome (ECS) are rare and challenging to treat. In this retrospective cohort study, we aimed to evaluate different approaches for bilateral adrenalectomy (BA) as a treatment option in ECS. Fifty-three patients with ECS caused by a NEN (35 females/18 men; mean ± SD age: 53 ± 15 years) were identified from medical records. Epidemiological and clinical parameters, survival, indications for surgery and timing, as well as duration of surgery, complications and surgical techniques, were collected and further analysed. The primary tumour location was thorax (n = 30), pancreas (n = 14) or unknown (n = 9). BA was performed in 37 patients. Median time from diagnosis of ECS to BA was 2 months (range 1–10 months). Thirty-two patients received different steroidogenesis inhibitors before BA to control hypercortisolaemia. ECS resolved completely after surgery in 33 patients and severe peri- or postoperative complications were detected in 12 patients. There were fewer severe complications in the endoscopic group compared to open surgery (p = .030). Posterior retroperitoneoscopic BA performed simultaneously by a two surgeon approach had the shortest operating time (p = .001). Despite the frequent use of adrenolytic treatment, BA was necessary in a majority of patients to gain control over ECS. Complication rate was high, probably as a result of the combination of metastatic disease and metabolic disorders caused by high cortisol levels. The two surgeon approach BA may be considered as the method of choice in ECS compared to other BA approaches as a result of fewer complications and a shorter operating time.


Endogenous Cushing’s syndrome (CS) has an estimated incidence of 0.2–5.0 per million people per year.1 In 5–10% of these, it is caused by ectopic secretion of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) or, in extremely rare cases, corticotrophin-releasing hormone, from a non-pituitary tumour.12

The treatment of neuroendocrine neoplasms (NENs) with ectopic secretion of ACTH is challenging. Because of the rarity and heterogeneity of this condition, there is no established evidence-based recommendation.3 Most patients with ectopic Cushing’s syndrome (ECS) have severe hypercortisolaemia leading to disrupted electrolyte and glucose levels, metabolic alkalosis, thrombosis and life-threatening infections, amongst many other manifestations. Initiation of oncological treatment is often delayed as a result of the consequences of high cortisol levels. A reduction of the cortisol level is crucial for survival and hypercortisolaemia and hypokalaemia are negative prognostic factors.45 If radical surgery of the tumour is not possible because of metastatic disease, normo-cortisolaemia can be achieved either by medical treatment with steroidogenesis inhibitors (SI) or bilateral adrenalectomy (BA),6 and BA has also been considered a treatment option for patients with occult or cyclic ECS. In patients with metastatic neuroendocrine carcinomas, platinum-based chemotherapy may be applied as first-line action, combined by SI and/or followed by BA. Computed tomography-guided percutaneous adrenal ablation has been reported in several case reports as a possible therapeutic alternative for patients in whom medical treatment has failed and BA is not feasible,710 althhough more data is needed to recommend this method in daily practice.

In the 1930s, transabdominal open access BA was introduced as a treatment option for uncontrolled cortisol secretion.11 Sixty years later, in the 1990s, laparoscopic methods were established1213 and are now considered as the gold standard for BA (except for adrenal carcinomas) because they result in less postoperative pain, a shorter hospitalisation time and faster recovery.14 Laparoscopic transperitoneal adrenalectomy (LTA) is the most frequently applied surgical method. However, posterior retroperitoneoscopic adrenalectomy (PRA), introduced in 1995 by Walz et al,15 is gaining popularity.16 Using PRA compared to LTA offers a more direct approach to the adrenal glands, a shorter operating time (no need for reposition of the patient), less blood loss and faster recovery, and it aso has advantages for patients with obesity or a history of previous abdominal surgery.16 There are centres where PRA is performed by a two surgeon approach; thus, a simultaneous bilateral approach offers the possibility of decreasing the surgical time by up to 50% and reducing operative stress.1719

The present study aimed to evaluate BA as a treatment option for ECS, as well as the effects of different approaches on morbidity and mortality. We hypothesised that endoscopic surgery methods could be superior regarding complication rate, operating and hospitalisation time compared to open access surgery and also influence overall survival.


2.1 Patients and data

A cohort of 59 patients with ECS was identified retrospectively from medical records of 894 patients with NENs, referred to the Department of Endocrine Oncology, Uppsala University Hospital between 1984 and 2019. None of the patients had a small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) because these tumours are not treated at our centre and possibly have a different mechanism behind ACTH production compared to that of NENs. Furthermore, SCLCs have a much more severe course of disease compared to well differentiated NENs and including them in the present study could mask any results important for NEN clinical management. Six patients were from outside Sweden and were excluded from further analysis because of a lack of follow-up data; thus, in total, 53 patients were available for analysis. Diagnosis of ECS was confirmed by histopathological examination of tumour specimen (n = 48) together with the clinical and biochemical picture of ACTH-dependent Cushing’s syndrome (elevated serum and urinary cortisol, high ACTH and pathological functional tests). In five patients where neither primary tumor, nor metastatic disease was found despite several PET examinations, including 68 Ga- DOTATOC-PET, 11C-5HTP-PET and 18FDG-PET in four of the five patients, ECS was confirmed on the basis of the clinical/biochemical picture and exclusion of pituitary origin by magnetic resonance imaging, as well as inferior sinus petrosus sampling.

Epidemiological data, data on clinical parameters, survival, indication and duration of surgery, complications and surgical technique were extracted and further analysed.

2.2 Surgery

BA was performed either by an open access approach, LTA or PRA. PRA was performed either by one surgeon (PRA-1S) or by two surgeons operating on both sides simultaneously (PRA-2S). Some patients were operated twice (one adrenal at the time) and, for those patients, operating time was pooled from both surgeries, if both sessions were performed within 1 week. Cases where conversion from an endoscopic to an open access approach was made peroperatively were grouped as open access surgery in further analysis. Patients who died during the postoperative stage (within 30 days) were excluded from calculation of hospitalisation time.

Postoperative complications were graded using the Clavien–Dindo classification where complications of Grade 1 are defined as “any deviation from the normal postoperative course without the need for pharmacological treatment or surgical, endoscopic and radiological interventions. Allowed therapeutic regimens are drugs as antiemetics, antipyretics, analgesics, diuretics and electrolytes and physiotherapy”.20 Because almost all patients had mild, Grade 1 postoperative complications (metabolic disturbances caused by hypercortisolaemia), this variable is not described. We defined complications up to Grade 2 as mild and Grade 3–5 as severe.

2.3 Statistical analysis

All parameters were analysed by descriptive statistics: normally distributed data as the mean ± SD, and data with skewed distribution and/or outliers were described as medians, accompanied by the 25th to 75th percentile ranges (Q1-Q3) or minimum-maximum (min-max). The defined event was death from any cause. Overall survival (OS) was defined as time from diagnosis of ECS or time of BA until date of death or, if the event was not found, censored at date of last observation, 31 December 2019. Kaplan-Meier plots were used for survival analysis and the log-rank test was used for comparison. Chi-squared was used for testing relationships between categorical variables. p < .05 was considered statistically significant. All statistical analyses were performed using IBM, version 27 (IBM Corp., Armonk, USA).


3.1 Studied patients

ECS represented six% (n = 59) of NENs in our cohort. Six patients were excluded from further analysis, resulting in 53 ECS patients who were analysed; there were 35 females and 18 males with a mean ± SD age of 53 ± 15 years. The localisation of the primary NEN was thorax (n = 30), pancreas (n = 14) or unknown (n = 9). Histopathological staining for Ki-67 was available in 38 patients and Ki-67 was < 2% in five patients, 3–20% in 22 patients and > 20% in 11 patients. Patient characteristics are shown in Tables 1 and 2. Twenty-two patients (41.5%) in this cohort had concomitant hypersecretion of hormones other than ACTH from their tumour (5-HIAA, n = 10; calcitonin, n = 3; 5-HIAA + calcitonin, n = 2; glucagon, n = 3, gastrin, n = 2; growth hormone, n = 1; insulin + gastrin + vasointestinal peptide, n = 1).

3.2 Surgery

Adrenalectomy was performed in 37 patients (70%); 24 patients were operated at Uppsala University Hospital, nine at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm and four at Umeå University Hospital. Median time from diagnosis of ECS to BA was 2 months (range 1–10 months). Median Ki-67 in patients who were operated within 2 months after ECS diagnosis was higher (Ki-67 18.5%) compared to those with BA performed later in the course of disease (Ki-67 9.5%), although the difference was not statistically significant (p = .085).

Thirty-two (86%) patients received different SI prior to BA to control hypercortisolaemia. Eight of those were treated with chemotherapy as well in an attempt to reduce cortisol levels. The majority of patients was treated with ketoconazole, often in combination with other drugs (Table 3). Indications for BA in our cohort included (1) persistent hypercortisolaemia despite use of SI (n = 30); (2) BA as first choice of treatment to reduce cortisol levels (n = 5); and (3) no effect combined with severe side effects from SI including liver toxicity and severe leukopenia (n = 2). In 16 patients, BA was not performed as a result of (1) good control of ECS with SI (n = 4); (2) radical surgery of the primary tumour (n = 3); (3) good control of ECS with SI followed by radical surgery of the primary tumour (n = 5) and (4) the bad condition of the patient (n = 4).

3.3 Survival analysis

There was no operative mortality in this cohort. Four patients died within 1 month after adrenalectomy (on day 5, 16, 22 and 30, respectively) as a result of multiple organ dysfunction syndrome and progression of NEN. At the end of the follow-up period, 14 patients were still alive and 39 had died.

Median survival after BA was 24 months (95% confidence interval [CI] = 7–41, min-max: 0–428) with a 5-year survival of 22%. Median follow-up time for all patients from time of ECS diagnosis was 26 (range 6–62) months and after BA was 19 (range 3–50) months. OS was longer in patients where ECS was treated by radical surgery of the primary tumour or where good biochemical control was achieved by SI compared to patients who underwent BA, 96 months (95% CI 0–206) vs 29 months (95% CI 7–51), respectively. However, this difference was not statistically significant (p = .086), most likely as a result of the small sample size. Multiple hormone secretion correlated with shorter OS after BA (p = .009; hazard ratio = 2.9; 95% CI= 1.3–6.7). There was no significant difference in OS after BA depending on localisation of primary tumour (thoracic NENs 24 months [95% CI = 8–40, min-max: 0–428], pancreatic NENs 19 months [95% CI = 0–43, min-max: 0–60], p = .319) or surgical approach (open access approach 24 months [95% CI = 1–47], endoscopic approach 19 months [95% CI = 1–37], p = .720).

Median time from ECS diagnosis to BA was 2 months (range 1–10). Patients who underwent BA within 2 months after ECS diagnosis had shorter OS compared to those who were operated at a later stage: 6 months (95% CI = 0–18) and 45 months (95% CI = 3–86) respectively (p = .007). The former group had a slightly higher median Ki-67 level (18% vs 9%), lower potassium (2.7 mmol L-1 vs 3.0 mmol L-1) and higher hormone levels (ACTH 217 vs 120 ng mL-1, morning cortisol 1448 vs 1181 nmol L-1 and UFC 5716 vs 4234 nmol per 24 h) at diagnosis compared to those who were operated later in the course of disease.


The present study highlights new aspects of the advantages of an endoscopic approach of BA compared to open access surgery, regarding the incidence of severe complications graded using the Clavien-Dindo classification, as well as operation- and hospitalisation time. Our results indicate that PRA performed by two surgeons simultaneously is the method of choice for patients with ECS. However, despite these advantages, the endoscopic approach did not appear to improve overall survival.

Recent Endocrine Society guidelines recommend SI as primary treatment for ECS in patients with occult or metastatic ECS followed by BA.6 Although the toxicity of SI in our cohort was low (n = 2; 6%), 32 patients (73%) had persistent hypercortisolaemia despite medical treatment and proceeded to BA. BA, especially with an endoscopic approach, with a short operating time and low complication risk, appears to play a major role in the appropriate management of hypercortisolaemia in ECS, where rapid reduction of cortisol levels is very important.

Prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels, in combination with high risk for hepatotoxic and nephrotoxic SI side effects, increases morbidity and risk for severe complications, and often delays the start of oncological treatment. However, the trauma caused by surgery can also postpone initiation of chemotherapy.21 Therefore, a fast and minimally invasive surgical procedure appears to be a crucial factor for the better survival in ECS. The endoscopic approach is now considered as the gold standard for BA. Our study presents fewer severe complications, as well as shorter operating and hospitalisation times, when the endoscopic approach is compared with open surgery. In line with previous studies,1922 we observed a significantly shorter operating time when applying PRA compared to LTA because there is no need for repositioning of the patient during PRA. PRA-2S had the shortest operating time and should be considered as the best choice of surgical approach in ECS. This result ties well with previous studies reporting the median operating time to be between 43 and 157 min in PRA-2S, which is significantly shorter compared to LTA and PRA-1S.1719

The median time from diagnosis to BA was 2 months, which is consistent with a previous study.23 However, OS was significantly shorter in patients who were operated within 2 months after diagnosis of ECS in our cohort compared to those operated at a later stage. These early operated patients probably had a more aggressive clinical course of disease, as indicated by slightly higher median Ki-67, lower potassium and higher hormone levels at diagnosis, and they were operated as a result of more acute indications (without time to proper pre-treatment with SI) than the other group.

In our previous report on patients with ACTH-producing NENs, multiple hormone secretion was identified as the strongest indicator of a worse prognosis.4 A similar pattern of results was observed in this cohort, showing that patients with NENs, with concomitant hypersecretion of other hormones than ACTH from their tumour, had a shorter OS after BA compared to those with ACTH hypersecretion only.

As a result of the extremely high preoperative cortisol levels in ECS, the substitution therapy needed after successful BA may be challenging.21 Over-replacement of glucocorticoids may lead to higher morbidity24 and mortality, especially in patients with metastatic NENs, who often have impaired immune function because of oncological treatment. Many patients suffer from glucocorticoid withdrawal syndrome, despite adequate replacement therapy, and it can take ≥ 1 year to gain control over these symptoms.6 This frequently leads to high dosage of glucocorticoids. The Endocrine Society guidelines recommend glucocorticoid replacement with hydrocortisone, 10–12 mg m-2 day-1 in divided doses.6 If we assume that most of our patients have body surface area around 2 m2 or less, the daily hydrocortisone dose should not exceed 25 mg. However, 1 year after BA, only one patient received 25 mg of hydrocortisone daily, with the majority receiving 30 mg or more. One-third of the patients had residual arterial hypertension and diabetes 3 months after BA, probably partially depending on too high a dose of glucocorticoids.

There was a higher complication rate in our cohort compared to other studies192526 and five patients needed conversion from an endoscopic approach to open surgery. In particular, the outcome of BA in ECS has not previously been systematically evaluated27 because most of the reports include patients with various aetiologies of CS.1922232829 In a systematic review of the literature published between 1980 and 2012 on BA in CS, Reincke et al23 identified 37 studies and ECS was present in 13% of the patients. There are only few papers focused on BA in ECS solely2125263031 and only one has a cohort with > 50 patients (n = 54).26 Patients with ECS have almost always a more aggressive course and more severe metabolic disturbance than patients with other types of Cushing’s syndrome, which probably leads to higher risk for postoperative complications. Furthermore, multiple liver metastases, fibrotic processes in the abdomen as a result of previous surgery or large primary tumour in pancreas could be some of the factors influencing surgical outcome in ECS.

The present study has several limitations. First, all data were collected retrospectively from patient records and not all the preferred parameters were available for all patients. Second, even if our cohort is one of the largest regarding studies on BA in ECS, the number of patients is too low for reliable statistical analysis. Finally, our study covered more than three decades, BAs were performed at different clinics and by different surgeons. Therefore, the data should be interpreted carefully.

In conclusion, the present study is one of few reports focusing on BA in specifically NEN patients with ECS and includes one of the largest patient cohorts analysed in the field. PRA-2S can be considered as method of choice in ECS compared to other BA approaches. The aim is to avoid administrating too high a hydrocortisone replacement dosage postoperatively because this can worsen the metabolic disturbance. As a result of the rarity of the condition, multicentre studies are needed with large, prospective cohorts and standardised inclusion criteria, aiming to further improve our knowledge about the management of ECS.


This study was funded by the Swedish Cancer Society (grant number CAN 18 0576), the Lions Foundation for Cancer Research at Uppsala University Hospital, Selanders Foundation and Söderbergs foundation at Uppsala University.


The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.


Ieva Lase: Conceptualisation; Data curation; Formal analysis; Investigation; Methodology; Visualisation; Writing – original draft; Writing – review & editing. Malin Grönberg: Formal analysis; Supervision; Visualisation; Writing – review & editing. Olov Norlén: Conceptualisation; Writing – review & editing. Peter Stålberg: Conceptualisation; Writing – review & editing. Staffan Welin: Conceptualisation; Supervision; Writing – review & editing. Eva Tiensuu Janson: Conceptualisation; Funding acquisition; Methodology; Supervision; Writing – review & editing.


The need for informed consent was waived by the local ethics committee. All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The study was approved by the local ethics committee, Regionala etikprövningsnämnden (EPN), in Uppsala, Sweden.


The peer review history for this article is available at

The entire article, PDF, supporting tables and more can be found at

Rapid Control Of Ectopic Cushing’s Syndrome During The Covid-19 Pandemic in a Patient With Chronic Hypokalaemia

This article was originally published here

Endocrinol Diabetes Metab Case Rep. 2021 May 1;2021:EDM210038. doi: 10.1530/EDM-21-0038. Online ahead of print.


SUMMARY: In this case report, we describe the management of a patient who was admitted with an ectopic ACTH syndrome during the COVID pandemic with new-onset type 2 diabetes, neutrophilia and unexplained hypokalaemia. These three findings when combined should alert physicians to the potential presence of Cushing’s syndrome (CS). On admission, a quick diagnosis of CS was made based on clinical and biochemical features and the patient was treated urgently using high dose oral metyrapone thus allowing delays in surgery and rapidly improving the patient’s clinical condition. This resulted in the treatment of hyperglycaemia, hypokalaemia and hypertension reducing cardiovascular risk and likely risk for infection. Observing COVID-19 pandemic international guidelines to treat patients with CS has shown to be effective and offers endocrinologists an option to manage these patients adequately in difficult times.

LEARNING POINTS: This case report highlights the importance of having a low threshold for suspicion and investigation for Cushing’s syndrome in a patient with neutrophilia and hypokalaemia, recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes especially in someone with catabolic features of the disease irrespective of losing weight. It also supports the use of alternative methods of approaching the diagnosis and treatment of Cushing’s syndrome during a pandemic as indicated by international protocols designed specifically for managing this condition during Covid-19.

PMID:34013889 | DOI:10.1530/EDM-21-0038


Acute and life-threatening complications in Cushing syndrome: Prevalence, predictors and mortality

Researchers conducted this retrospective cohort study to investigate acute and life-threatening complications in patients with active Cushing syndrome (CS). Participants in the study were 242 patients with CS, including 213 with benign CS (pituitary n = 101, adrenal n = 99, ectopic n = 13), and 29 with malignant disease.

In patients with benign pituitary CS, the prevalence of acute complications was 62%, 40% in patients with benign adrenal CS, and 100% in patients with ectopic CS. Infections, thromboembolic events, hypokalemia, hypertensive crises, cardiac arrhythmias and acute coronary events were complications reported in patients with benign CS.

The whole spectrum of acute and life-threatening complications in CS and their high prevalence was illustrated in this study both before disease diagnosis and after successful surgery.

Read the full article on Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

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