History of Cortisone’s Discovery

It was Christmas Day in 1914 when the Mayo Clinic chemist Edward C. Kendall, PhD, first succeeded in isolating pure crystalline thyroxin using 6,500 pounds of hog thyroid glands, a success that would set him on the course for making one of the greatest discoveries in medicine in the last century.

His pivotal discovery, according to William F. Young, Jr., MD, MSc, chair of the division of endocrinology, diabetes, metabolism and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, would lead Kendall, a self-described “hormone hunter,” to conduct adrenal experiments that would eventually change the course of medicine in ways he couldn’t have imagined. Kendall and his team’s discovery of cortisone would lead not only to a breakthrough treatment, Young said, but a Nobel Prize and international acclaim.

In an interview prior to presenting the Clark T. Swain Memorial History of Endocrinology Lecture at ENDO 2017, Young said that understanding the history behind such a monumental discovery can help endocrinologists see how hormone research has evolved, and provides insight into how to make advances in basic science and improve patient care. In preparing to tell Kendall’s story, Young completed archival research at Mayo and uncovered information that has not previously been published, he said.

“The cortisone story originated at Mayo Clinic, where I have been on staff for 33 years,” Young told Endocrine Today. “Although much of this story is not new information, it is not familiar to the current generations of endocrine scientists and clinical endocrinologists. It is a story of discovery science, clinical intuition, persistence, team science, patient volunteerism and sacrifice, hopes, and dreams.”

‘A big oak tree’

When Kendall first took on the project of preparing better adrenal extracts to potentially treat Addison’s disease in 1930, he was already thinking bigger, Young said.

“He once said, ‘I want to grow a great big oak tree … I am not interested in a bunch of blackberry bushes,’” Young said.

During his experiments at Mayo Clinic, the cost of bovine adrenals rose from 0.20 cents a pound to $3 per pound, equivalent to $42 per pound today. In 1934, Kendall struck a deal with Parke Davis Co., were he would extract “adrenalin” at no cost for the company if it would, in turn, deliver to him 600 pounds of bovine adrenals each week, Young said. He would then use the adrenal cortex for his studies.

In addition, Kendall struck a side deal with Wilson Labs, Young said, for an additional 300 pounds of bovine adrenals per week, to produce a cortical extract for them. He would in turn use the adrenal medullas to boost his production of adrenalin for the Park Davis deal.

“From 1934 to 1949, virtually all of the adrenaline used in North America was manufactured at Mayo Clinic in the small town of in Rochester, Minnesota,” Young said. “This lab ran 24 hours a day, in three shifts. By 1949, over 150 tons of adrenal glands had been processed at Mayo Clinic … $12.4 million in research supply dollars.”

A new discovery

In 1934, Kendall recognized through his work that the adrenal cortex produced more than one hormone, Young said. Over the next year, Kendall’s group isolated five crystalline compounds, naming them compounds “A” through “E” based on their order of identification. Compound “E” — what would later be named cortisone — was found to be biologically active, Young said.

Interest in synthesizing the active hormone from the adrenal cortex grew as part of the American war effort in the 1940s, Young said, and the U.S. National Research Council made it a priority. By 1948, 9,000 mg of “compound E” had been synthesized for clinical study; 2,000 mg were given to each of three investigators at Mayo Clinic for studies in patients with Addison’s disease and the remaining 3,000 mg were saved for future study.

In 1948, a patient known as H.G., a 28-year-old women with progressive inflammatory arthritis, presented to the clinic, Young said. After an unsuccessful treatment with the Swedish hepatoxin lactophenin — a therapy used at the time that induced jaundice in some patients, leading to remission — her physician, Philip Hench, went to Kendall for help. Kendall agreed to give Hench some of the remaining 3,000 mg of “compound E,” if Hench could convince Merck to grant permission.

The clinicians did get permission, and H.G. began treatment. Within days, Young said, the improvement was remarkable. Reading from the original, handwritten notes of Hench and his colleagues in rheumatology, , Young detailed the patient’s progress:

“Rolled over and turned off the radio with ease for the first time in weeks,” the notes said from “day 3.” “No more trembling of knees when moving.”

The clinicians were so amazed, Young said, that they filmed H.G’s progress. Young, who obtained the original films from the Mayo Clinic archives, showed footage of a crippled H.G. struggling to stand, only to be walking normally.

“They started taking videos because they realized no one would believe them,” Young said as the video played. “That they actually had something that could affect, up until this point, a crippling disorder.”

Hench came up with the acronym “cortisone,” adapted from corticosterone.

The discovery became international news. In December 1950, Kendall, Hench along with Tadeus Reichstein, received the 1950 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine — just 27 months after H.G. received her first dose of “compound E.”

The future of corticosteroids

Today, Young said, corticosteroids are used for their anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties across the field of medicine. Natural and synthetic glucocorticoids are used to treat a wide variety of non-adrenal diseases, from allergies, to gastrointestinal disorders and infectious diseases.

The important story of patient H.G. — and the scientific journey of Kendall and his colleagues — still resonates, Young said.

“My hope is that this story will remind us of our endocrine heritage and give us an opportunity to recognize the unlimited potential for discovery, research and clinical investigation that is taking place in research laboratories and clinical endocrine centers across the globe,” Young said in an interview. “In the current environment in the U.S., where federal research funds are being cut back, it is important to recall where the major advances in research and public health have come from.”

“There are many other messages in the presentation,” Young said. “For example, the importance of ‘team science’— a phrase only recently coined — has been in place for decades. It is team science that has led to many of the major advances in medicine, including the therapeutic use of corticosteroids.” – by Regina Schaffer


Young WF. A Chemist, a Patient and the 1950 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine: The Stories Behind the Stories on Cortisone. Presented at: The Endocrine Society Annual Meeting; April 1-4, 2017; Orlando, Fla.

Disclosures: Young reports no relevant financial disclosures.


From http://www.healio.com/endocrinology/adrenal/news/online/%7Bd8d71bcc-a981-418e-9d41-af4b2dcaa48f%7D/history-of-cortisones-discovery-offers-lessons-in-team-science-persistence

The Pituitary Gland: Small But Mighty

The pituitary gland works hard to keep you healthy, doing everything from ensuring proper bone and muscle growth to helping nursing mothers produce milk for their babies. Its functionality is even more remarkable when you consider the gland is the size of a pea.

“The pituitary is commonly referred to as the ‘master’ gland because it does so many important jobs in the body,” says Karen Frankwich, MD, a board-certified endocrinologist at Mission Hospital. “Not only does the pituitary make its own hormones, but it also triggers hormone production in other glands. The pituitary is aided in its job by the hypothalamus. This part of the brain is situated above the pituitary, and sends messages to the gland on when to release or stimulate production of necessary hormones.”

These hormones include:

  • Growth hormone, for healthy bone and muscle mass
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone, which signals the thyroid to produce its hormones that govern metabolism and the body’s nervous system, among others
  • Follicle-stimulating and luteinizing hormones for healthy reproductive systems (including ovarian egg development in women and sperm formation in men, as well as estrogen and testosterone production)
  • Prolactin, for breast milk production in nursing mothers
  • Adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), which prompts the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormone cortisol. The proper amount of cortisol helps the body adapt to stressful situations by affecting the immune and nervous systems, blood sugar levels, blood pressure and metabolism.
  • Antidiuretic (ADH), which helps the kidneys control urine levels
  • Oxytocin, which can stimulate labor in pregnant women

The work of the pituitary gland can be affected by non-cancerous tumors called adenomas. “These tumors can affect hormone production, so you have too little or too much of a certain hormone,” Dr. Frankwich says. “Larger tumors that are more than 1 centimeter, called macroadenomas, can also put pressure on the area surrounding the gland, which can lead to vision problems and headaches. Because symptoms can vary depending on the hormone that is affected by a tumor, or sometimes there are no symptoms, adenomas can be difficult to pinpoint. General symptoms can include nausea, weight loss or gain, sluggishness or weakness, and changes in menstruation for women and sex drive for men.”

If there’s a suspected tumor, a doctor will usually run tests on a patient’s blood and urine, and possibly order a brain-imaging scan. An endocrinologist can help guide a patient on the best course of treatment, which could consist of surgery, medication, radiation therapy or careful monitoring of the tumor if it hasn’t caused major disruption.

“The pituitary gland is integral to a healthy, well-functioning body in so many ways,” Dr. Frankwich says. “It may not be a major organ you think about much, but it’s important to know how it works, and how it touches on so many aspects of your health.”

Learn more about Mission Hospital. Learn more about Dr. Frankwich.

From http://www.stjhs.org/HealthCalling/2016/December/The-Pituitary-Gland-Small-but-Mighty.aspx

Helpful Endocrinologist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Dr. Murray Gordon is an endocrinologist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, including Allegheny General Hospital and Washington Hospital. He received his medical degree from Albany Medical College and has been in practice for more than 20 years. Dr. Gordon accepts several types of health insurance, listed below. He is one of 8 doctors at Allegheny General Hospital and one of 3 at Washington Hospital who specialize in Endocrinology, Diabetes & Metabolism.

Dr. Gordon is in private practice and has an  experienced research site that is currently recruiting for a Cushing’s Syndrome Trial.  If interested in this trial, please call Ann at 412-359-5143.


420 E North Ave
Suite 205
Pittsburgh, PA 15212

Phone (412) 359-3426

Fax (412) 359-6974

Cushing’s disease best treated by endocrinologist

Dear Dr. Roach: I was told that I have Cushing’s disease, which has caused diabetes, high blood pressure, hunger, weight gain and muscle loss. I was never sick before this, and I did not have any of those things. I am told I have a tumor on my right adrenal gland. I have been to numerous doctors, but most have not been too helpful. They seem to try to treat the diabetes or blood pressure, but nothing else. They seem not to be familiar with Cushing’s. I tell them which medication works, but they still give me new medication. I have an endocrinologist and am scheduled to meet a urologist.

I have managed to go to physical therapy, exercise every day and lose over 50 pounds. I am not happy with the advice I’m getting. I was told that surgery to remove the tumor will fix everything, but that I would need to take steroids for either a short term or for life. My body is already making too much cortisol. I have 50 more pounds to lose. I work hard to keep the weight down. I feel like a science experiment. Within a week, I have had three different medications. I could not tell which was causing the side effects and making me dehydrated. I am not sure surgery is right for me, because they said it can be done laparoscopically, but if they can’t do it that way, they will have to cut me all the way across, which may take a long time to heal and may get infected.

Do you know what tests will confirm the diagnosis? Would surgery fix all these problems? I had the 24-hour urine test, the saliva test and blood tests. I want to know if it may be something else instead of Cushing’s. I’m not on anything for the high cortisol levels.

– A.L.

A: It sounds very much like you have Cushing’s syndrome, which is caused by excess cortisone, a hormone that has many effects. It is called Cushing’s disease when the underlying cause is a pituitary tumor that causes the adrenal gland to make excess cortisone. (Cortisone and cortisol are different names for the same chemical, also called a glucocorticoid.) Cushing’s syndrome also may be caused by an adenoma (benign tumor) of the adrenal gland, which sounds like the case in you.

The high amounts of cortisone produced by the adrenal tumor cause high blood pressure, glucose intolerance or frank diabetes, increased hunger, obesity (especially of the abdomen – large bellies and skinny limbs are classic), dark-colored striae (stretch marks), easy bruising, a reddish face and often weakness of arm and leg muscles. When full-blown, the syndrome is easy to spot, but many people don’t have all the characteristics, especially early in the course of the disease.

Your endocrinologist is the expert in diagnosis and management, and has done most of the tests. I am somewhat surprised that you haven’t yet seen a surgeon to have the tumor removed. Once it is removed, the body quickly starts to return to normal, although losing the weight can be a problem for many.

I have seen cases in my training where, despite many tests, the diagnosis was still uncertain. The endocrinologist orders a test where the blood is sampled from both adrenal veins (which contain the blood that leaves the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys). If the adrenal vein on the side of the tumor has much more cortisone than the opposite side, the diagnosis is certain.

By DR. KEITH ROACH For the Herald & Review at http://herald-review.com/news/opinion/editorial/columnists/roach/dr-roach-cushing-s-disease-best-treated-by-endocrinologist/article_38e71835-464d-5946-aa9c-4cb1366bcee3.html

Past News Items: My 37-year-old daughter has Addison’s disease.



Because, sometimes Old News is still valid!

From Tuesday, September 16, 2008

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My 37-year-old daughter has Addison’s disease. Many doctors saw her when she was hospitalized a year ago. She had to go back to the hospital because of stomach upset, back pain and dehydration. Her skin has darkened. She was told she would be fine after she started steroids. This hasn’t happened. She is constantly sick. Do you have any good news? — L.K.

ANSWER: With Addison’s disease, the adrenal glands have stopped producing their many hormones. Those hormones include cortisone and aldosterone. Cortisone gives us energy, combats inflammation and figures into many of the body’s most important functions. Aldosterone is essential for blood pressure maintenance. Without adrenal gland hormones, the skin darkens, especially the elbow skin and the creases in the hands.

Treatment is straightforward: Replace the missing hormones. Maybe the dosage of her hormone medicines needs revision. If she’s hasn’t shortly turned the corner, she should get a second opinion from an endocrinologist, a specialist in this kind of illness.

From http://www.kilgorenewsherald.com/news/2008/0916/advice/009.html

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