COVID-19 and Cushing’s syndrome: recommendations for a special population with endogenous glucocorticoid excess

Rosario Pivonello,a,b Rosario Ferrigno,a Andrea M Isidori,c Beverly M K Biller,d Ashley B Grossman,e,f and Annamaria Colaoa,b

Over the past few months, COVID-19, the pandemic disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, has been associated with a high rate of infection and lethality, especially in patients with comorbidities such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and immunodeficiency syndromes.

These cardiometabolic and immune impairments are common comorbidities of Cushing’s syndrome, a condition characterised by excessive exposure to endogenous glucocorticoids. In patients with Cushing’s syndrome, the increased cardiovascular risk factors, amplified by the increased thromboembolic risk, and the increased susceptibility to severe infections, are the two leading causes of death.

In healthy individuals in the early phase of infection, at the physiological level, glucocorticoids exert immunoenhancing effects, priming danger sensor and cytokine receptor expression, thereby sensitising the immune system to external agents. However, over time and with sustained high concentrations, the principal effects of glucocorticoids are to produce profound immunosuppression, with depression of innate and adaptive immune responses. Therefore, chronic excessive glucocorticoids might hamper the initial response to external agents and the consequent activation of adaptive responses. Subsequently, a decrease in the number of B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes, as well as a reduction in T-helper cell activation might favour opportunistic and intracellular infection. As a result, an increased risk of infection is seen, with an estimated prevalence of 21–51% in patients with Cushing’s syndrome. Therefore, despite the absence of data on the effects of COVID-19 in patients with Cushing’s syndrome, one can make observations related to the compromised immune state in patients with Cushing’s syndrome and provide expert advice for patients with a current or past history of Cushing’s syndrome.

Fever is one of the hallmarks of severe infections and is present in up to around 90% of patients with COVID-19, in addition to cough and dyspnoea. However, in active Cushing’s syndrome, the low-grade chronic inflammation and the poor immune response might limit febrile response in the early phase of infection. Conversely, different symptoms might be enhanced in patients with Cushing’s syndrome; for instance, dyspnoea might occur because of a combination of cardiac insufficiency or weakness of respiratory muscles. Therefore, during active Cushing’s syndrome, physicians should seek different signs and symptoms when suspecting COVID-19, such as cough, together with dysgeusia, anosmia, and diarrhoea, and should be suspicious of any change in health status of their patients with Cushing’s syndrome, rather than relying on fever and dyspnoea as typical features.

The clinical course of COVID-19 might also be difficult to predict in patients with active Cushing’s syndrome. Generally, patients with COVID-19 and a history of obesity, hypertension, or diabetes have a more severe course, leading to increased morbidity and mortality. Because these conditions are observed in most patients with active Cushing’s syndrome, these patients might be at an increased risk of severe course, with progression to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), when developing COVID-19. However, a key element in the development of ARDS during COVID-19 is the exaggerated cellular response induced by the cytokine increase, leading to massive alveolar–capillary wall damage and a decline in gas exchange. Because patients with Cushing’s syndrome might not mount a normal cytokine response, these patients might parodoxically be less prone to develop severe ARDS with COVID-19. Moreover, Cushing’s syndrome and severe COVID-19 are associated with hypercoagulability, such that patients with active Cushing’s syndrome might present an increased risk of thromboembolism with COVID-19. Consequently, because low molecular weight heparin seems to be associated with lower mortality and disease severity in patients with COVID-19, and because anticoagulation is also recommended in specific conditions in patients with active Cushing’s syndrome, this treatment is strongly advised in hospitalised patients with Cushing’s syndrome who have COVID-19. Furthermore, patients with active Cushing’s syndrome are at increased risk of prolonged duration of viral infections, as well as opportunistic infections, particularly atypical bacterial and invasive fungal infections, leading to sepsis and an increased mortality risk, and COVID-19 patients are also at increased risk of secondary bacterial or fungal infections during hospitalisation. Therefore, in cases of COVID-19 during active Cushing’s syndrome, prolonged antiviral treatment and empirical prophylaxis with broad-spectrum antibiotics should be considered, especially for hospitalised patients (panel ).

Panel

Risk factors and clinical suggestions for patients with Cushing’s syndrome who have COVID-19

Reduction of febrile response and enhancement of dyspnoea

Rely on different symptoms and signs suggestive of COVID-19, such as cough, dysgeusia, anosmia, and diarrhoea.

Prolonged duration of viral infections and susceptibility to superimposed bacterial and fungal infections

Consider prolonged antiviral and broad-spectrum antibiotic treatment.

Impairment of glucose metabolism (negative prognostic factor)

Optimise glycaemic control and select cortisol-lowering drugs that improve glucose metabolism. Hypertension (negative prognostic factor) Optimise blood pressure control and select cortisol-lowering drugs that improve blood pressure.

Thrombosis diathesis (negative prognostic factor)

Start antithrombotic prophylaxis, preferably with low-molecular-weight heparin treatment.

Surgery represents the first-line treatment for all causes of Cushing’s syndrome, but during the pandemic a delay might be appropriate to reduce the hospital-associated risk of COVID-19, any post-surgical immunodepression, and thromboembolic risks. Because immunosuppression and thromboembolic diathesis are common Cushing’s syndrome features, during the COVID-19 pandemic, cortisol-lowering medical therapy, including the oral drugs ketoconazole, metyrapone, and the novel osilodrostat, which are usually effective within hours or days, or the parenteral drug etomidate when immediate cortisol control is required, should be temporarily used. Nevertheless, an expeditious definitive diagnosis and proper surgical resolution of hypercortisolism should be ensured in patients with malignant forms of Cushing’s syndrome, not only to avoid disease progression risk but also for rapidly ameliorating hypercoagulability and immunospuppression; however, if diagnostic procedures cannot be easily secured or surgery cannot be done for limitations of hospital resources due to the pandemic, medical therapy should be preferred. Concomitantly, the optimisation of medical treatment for pre-existing comorbidities as well as the choice of cortisol-lowering drugs with potentially positive effects on obesity, hypertension, or diabates are crucial to improve the eventual clinical course of COVID-19.

Once patients with Cushing’s syndrome are in remission, the risk of infection is substantially decreased, but the comorbidities related to excess glucocorticoids might persist, including obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, together with thromboembolic diathesis. Because these are features associated with an increased death risk in patients with COVID-19, patients with Cushing’s syndrome in remission should be considered a high-risk population and consequently adopt adequate self-protection strategies to minimise contagion risk.

In conclusion, COVID-19 might have specific clinical presentation, clinical course, and clinical complications in patients who also have Cushing’s syndrome during the active hypercortisolaemic phase, and therefore careful monitoring and specific consideration should be given to this special, susceptible population. Moreover, the use of medical therapy as a bridge treatment while waiting for the pandemic to abate should be considered.

Acknowledgments

RP reports grants and personal fees from Novartis, Strongbridge, HRA Pharma, Ipsen, Shire, and Pfizer; grants from Corcept Therapeutics and IBSA Farmaceutici; and personal fees from Ferring and Italfarmaco. AMI reports non-financial support from Takeda and Ipsen; grants and non-financial support from Shire, Pfizer, and Corcept Therapeutics. BMKB reports grants from Novartis, Strongbridge, and Millendo; and personal fees from Novartis and Strongbridge. AC reports grants and personal fees from Novartis, Ipsen, Shire, and Pfizer; personal fees from Italfarmaco; and grants from Lilly, Merck, and Novo Nordisk. All other authors declare no competing interests.

References

1. Kakodkar P, Kaka N, Baig MN. A comprehensive literature review on the clinical presentation, and management of the pandemic coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Cureus. 2020;12 [PMC free article] [PubMed[]
2. Pivonello R, Isidori AM, De Martino MC, Newell-Price J, Biller BMK, Colao A. Complications of Cushing’s syndrome: state of the art. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 2016;4:611–629. [PubMed[]
3. Cain DW, Cidlowski JA. Immune regulation by glucocorticoids. Nat Rev Immunol. 2017;17:233–247. [PubMed[]
4. Hasenmajer V, Sbardella E, Sciarra F, Minnetti M, Isidori AM, Venneri MA. The immune system in Cushing’s syndrome. Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2020 doi: 10.1016/j.tem.2020.04.004. published online May 6, 2020. [PubMed] [CrossRef[]
5. Ye Q, Wang B, Mao J. The pathogenesis and treatment of the ‘Cytokine Storm’ in COVID-19. J Infect. 2020;80:607–613. [PMC free article] [PubMed[]
6. Tang N, Bai H, Chen X, Gong J, Li D, Sun Z. Anticoagulant treatment is associated with decreased mortality in severe coronavirus disease 2019 patients with coagulopathy. J Thromb Haemost. 2020;18:1094–1099. [PubMed[]
7. Isidori AM, Minnetti M, Sbardella E, Graziadio C, Grossman AB. Mechanisms in endocrinology: the spectrum of haemostatic abnormalities in glucocorticoid excess and defect. Eur J Endocrinol. 2015;173:R101–R113. [PubMed[]
8. Nieman LK, Biller BM, Findling JW. Treatment of Cushing’s syndrome: an endocrine society clinical practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015;100:2807–2831. [PMC free article] [PubMed[]
9. Pivonello R, De Leo M, Cozzolino A, Colao A. The treatment of Cushing’s disease. Endocr Rev. 2015;36:385–486. [PMC free article] [PubMed[]
10. Newell-Price J, Nieman L, Reincke M, Tabarin A. Endocrinology in the time of COVID-19: management of Cushing’s syndrome. Eur J Endocrinol. 2020 doi: 10.1530/EJE-20-0352. published online April 1. [PubMed] [CrossRef[]

Cushing’s syndrome in a child

Abstract

Cushing’s syndrome is a rare entity in children. Adrenal tumour is the common cause of this syndrome in young children, whereas, iatrogenic causes are more common among older children. We report a 4 year old male child diagnosed with Cushing syndrome due to a right adrenal adenoma; the child presented with obesity and increase distribution of body hair. After thorough investigation and control of hypertension and dyselectrolytemia, right adrenalectomy was performed. The patient had good clinical recovery with weight loss and biochemical resolution of Cushing’s syndrome.

1. Introduction

Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is rarely encountered in children. The overall incidence of Cushing syndrome is approximately 2–5 new cases per million people per year. Only approximately 10% of the new cases each year occur in children [1]. Unlike in adults, a male-to-female predominance have been observed in infants and young toddlers [[1][2][3]]. Although iatrogenic causes are common in children above seven years of age, adrenal causes (adenoma, carcinoma or hyperplasia) are common in children of younger age [4]. We report a 4 year old boy diagnosed with Cushing syndrome caused by a right adrenal adenoma, who had presented with obesity and increase distribution of body hair. Right adrenalectomy was performed and clinical stabilization resulted in weight loss and biochemical resolution of Cushing’s syndrome. (see Fig. 5)

2. Case report

A 4 years old boy presented with complaints of excessive weight gain of 5 months duration and increase frequency of micturition and appearance of body hair for 4 months. There was no history of any other illness, medication or steroid intake. The child was first born at term by normal vaginal delivery and birth weight of 3 kg. Physical examination revealed a chubby boy with moon face, buffalo hump, protruding abdomen, increase body hair and appearance of coarse pubic hair (Fig. 1). His intelligent quotient (IQ) was appropriate for his age and sex. His younger sibling was in good health and other family members did not have any metabolic or similar problems.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1. The child with moon face, protruded abdomen and coarse body hair.

The patient’s body length was 92cm (between -2SD to -3SD), weight 20kg (between 1 SD and 2 SD), weight for height >3SD, and BMI was 23.6 (BMI for age >3 SD). His blood pressure on right arm in lying position was 138/76 mm Hg (above 99th percentile for height and age).

Investigations: Morning 8am serum cortisol level – 27.3 μg/dl (normal: 6–23 μg/dl).

with a concurrent plasma ACTH level of < 5 pg/ml (n value < 46 pg/ml).

His serum cortisol following low dose dexamethasone suppression test (1mg dexamethasone at 11pm) at 8 am next morning was 22.1 μug/dl and his 24 hours urine catecholamine fraction was within normal limit.

HB % — 10.3 gm/dl; LDDST — 25 μg/dl; FBS — 106 mg/dl.

Serum Na+ – 140.6mmol/l; K+ – 2.83mmol/l; Ca+ – 8.7 mg/dl.

S. Creatinine −0.3 mg/dl.

Ultrasonography of abdomen revealed a heterogenous predominantly hypoechoic right supra renal mass. Contrast enhanced CT abdomen revealed well defined soft tissue density lesion (size −5.2 cm × 5.2 cm x 5.7cm) in right adrenal gland with calcifications and fat attenuations showing mild attenuation on post contrast study (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2. CECT shows right adrenal mass with calcification and mild attenuation on post-contrast study.

The child was started on oral amlodipine 2.5mg 12hourly; after 5days blood pressure became normal. For hypokalemia oral potassium was given @20 meq 8 hourly and serum potassium value became normal after 4 days. Right laparoscopic adrenalectomy was planned. but due to intra operative technical problems it was converted to an open adrenalectomy with right subcostal incision. A lobulated mass of size 9 cm × 5 cm x 4 cm with intact capsule was excised. The tumour weighed 230 gm. There was no adhesion with adjacent organs, three regional nodes were enlarged but without any tumour tissue. Inferior vena cava was spared. Histopathology report was consistent with adrenal adenoma (Fig. 3) (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 3

Fig. 3. Cut section of tumour shows fleshy mass with fatty tissue.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4. Microphotograph (100 × 10) showing intact capsule and adrenal tumour cells, which are larger in size with nuclear pleomorphism, inconspicuous nucleoli, cytoplasm of the tumour cells are abundant, eosinophilic and vacuolated.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5. Physical appearance 4 months after adrenalectomy.

Post operative management: during post operative period hypokalemia and flaxuating blood sugar level was managed with oral potassium and oral glucose supplement. patient developed mild cough and respiratory distress on post op day 2, it was managed with salbutamol nebulization and respiratory physio therapy. Patient developed minor ssi and discharged on 10 th post operative day with oral prednisolone supplementation.

Follow up: the patient was followed up 2week after discharge and then every monthly, the oral prednisolone was gradually tapered and completely withdrawn on 2nd month after surgery.The patient experienced no post-surgical complications. After 4 months of surgery he reduces 6 kgs of his body weight with BMI of 16.5 (between median and 1SD) & BP 100/74 mm hg (within normal range), the moon face, buffalo hump, central obesity disappeared, morning 8am serum cortisol level was found within normal range 14 μg/dl (n value 6–23 μg/dl).

3. Discussion

Cushing’s syndrome is caused by prolonged exposure to supraphysiological levels of circulating glucocorticoids, which may be endogenously or exogenously derived. During infancy, CS is usually associated with McCune-Albright syndrome; adrenocortical tumours most commonly occur in children under four years of age and Cushing’s disease (ACTH dependent) is the commonest cause of CS after five years of age [5]. Primary adrenocortical tumours (ACTs) account for only 0.3–0.4% of all childhood neoplasms. Almost a third of these tumours manifests as Cushing syndrome and over 70% of the unilateral tumours in young children are often malignant [2,3,6,7]. There seems to be a bimodal incidence of these tumours, with one peak at under 5 years of age and the second one in the fourth or fifth decades of life. ACTs may be associated with other syndromes, such as, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Beckwith-wiedemann syndrome, isolated hemihypertrophy, or even a germline point mutation of P53 tumour suppressor gene as reported in a series from Brazil [8]. In comparison to adult CS, growth failure with associated weight gain is one of the most reliable indicators of hypercortisolaemia in pediatric CS. The parents often fail to notice facial changes and growth failure and hence the diagnosis is often delayed. In one study, the mean time from appearing symptoms to diagnosis in 33 children with Cushing’s disease was 2.5 years [5]. More recently the comparison of height and BMI SDS measurements provided a sensitive diagnostic discriminator in pediatric patients with CD and those with simple obesity [9]. In the present case, the parents observed noticeable changes in his face and presence of body hair, which made them to bring the child to medical attention. A review of 254 children on the International Pediatric Adrenocortical Tumour Registry identified virilization as the most common manifestation [10]. About 10% of the tumours can be non-functional at presentation, and approximately one third of pediatric patients present with hypertension. Majority of patients (192/254) in the Registry had localized disease and metastatic disease was found in less than 5% of cases. Older children with CS or mixed androgen and cortisol secreting adrenocortical tumours had a worse prognosis compared to younger children [10]. The present case had mild hypertension as well as dyselectrolytemia at presentation, which could be controlled with medication. He had a single adenoma confined to the adrenal gland and there was no evidence of malignancy. After surgical excision of the tumour and the right adrenal gland, the patient made rapid improvement in clinical condition and has been on follow up for last 7 months.

4. Conclusion

Pediatric adrenocortical tumours (ACTs) are most commonly encountered in females and in children less than four years. But our case being an 4-year-old boy forms a rare presentation of endogenous Cushing’s syndrome due to adrenal adenoma. Cushing’s syndrome in this child was controlled after right adrenalectomy.

Patient consent

Informed written consent was taken.

Funding

No funding or grant support.

Authorship

All authors attest that they meet the current ICMJE criteria for authorship.

Declaration of competing interest

The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.

References

Cortisol Levels Predict Remission in Cushing’s Patients Undergoing Transsphenoidal Surgery

In patients with Cushing’s disease, removing the pituitary tumor via an endoscopic transsphenoidal surgery (TSS) leads to better remission rates than microscopic TSS, according to new research.

But regardless of surgical approach, plasma cortisol levels one day after surgery are predictive of remission, researchers found.

The study, “Management of Cushing’s disease: Changing trend from microscopic to endoscopic surgery,” was published in the journal World Neurosurgery.

Because it improves visualization and accessibility, endoscopic TSS has been gaining popularity over microscopic TSS to remove pituitary tumors in Cushing’s disease patients. Yet, although this surgery has been associated with high remission rates, whether it outperforms microscopic surgery and determining the factors affecting long-term outcomes may further ease disease recurrence after TSS.

A team with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences addressed this topic in 104 patients who underwent surgery from January 2009 to June 2017. Among these patients, 47 underwent microscopic surgery and 55 endoscopic surgery. At presentation, their ages ranged from 9 to 55 (mean age of 28). Also, patients had been experiencing Cushing’s symptoms over a mean duration of 24 months.

Eighty-seven patients showed weight gain. Hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes mellitus were among the most common co-morbidities, found in 76 and 33 patients, respectively. Nineteen patients had osteoporosis and 12 osteopenia, which refers to lower-than-normal bone mineral density.

As assessed with magnetic resonance imaging, 68 patients had a microadenoma (a tumor diameter smaller than one centimeter) and 27 had a macroadenoma (a tumor one centimeter or larger). Only two patients had an invasive pituitary adenoma.

Two patients with larger tumors were operated on transcranially (through the skull). The surgery resulted in total tumor removal in 90 cases (86.5%). A blood loss greater than 100 milliliter was more common with endoscopic than with microscopic TSS.

Ten patients developed transient diabetes inspidus, two experienced seizures after surgery, and six of nine patients with macroadenoma and visual deterioration experienced vision improvements after TSS.

The incidence of intraoperative leak of cerebrospinal fluid — the liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord — was 23.2%, while that of post-operative leak was 7.7% and was more common in microadenoma than macroadenoma surgery (9.8% vs. 5.0%).

Seventeen patients were lost to follow-up and two died due to metabolic complications and infections. The average follow-up was shorter for endoscopic than with microscopic surgery (18 months vs. 35 months).

Among the remaining 85 cases, 65 (76.5%) experienced remission, as defined by a morning cortisol level under 5.0 μg/dL, restored circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock, typically impaired in Cushing’s patients), and suppression of serum cortisol to below 2 μg/dl after overnight dexamethasone suppression test.

The remission rate was 54.5% in pediatric patients and was higher with endoscopic than with microscopic TSS (88.2% vs. 56.6%). Also, patients with microadenoma showed a trend toward more frequent remission than those with macroadenoma (73.2% vs. 64.3%).

Ten of the remaining 20 patients experienced disease recurrence up to 28 months after surgery. Sixteen cases revealed signs of hypopituitarism, or pituitary insufficiency, which were managed with replacement therapy.

A subsequent analysis found that morning cortisol level on day one after surgery was the only significant predictor of remission. Specifically, a one-unit increase in cortisol lowered the likelihood of remission by 7%. A cortisol level lower than 10.7 μgm/dl was calculated as predicting remission.

Overall, the study showed that “postoperative plasma cortisol level is a strong independent predictor of remission,” the researchers wrote, and that “remission provided by endoscopy is significantly better than microscopic approach.”

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2019/09/24/cortisol-levels-predict-remission-cushings-patients-undergoing-transsphenoidal-surgery/

Adrenal incidentalomas—do they need follow up?

Are adrenal incidentalomas, which are found by chance on imaging, really harmless? In this paper, the authors looked at 32 studies, including 4121 patients with benign non-functioning adrenal tumours (NFATs) or adenomas that cause mild autonomous cortisol excess (MACE).

Only 2.5% of the tumours grew to a clinically significant extent over a mean follow-up period of 50 months, and no one developed adrenal cancer. Of those patients with NFAT or MACE, 99.9% didn’t develop clinically significant hormone (cortisol) excess. This was a group (especially those with MACE) with a high prevalence of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. This could be because adrenal adenomas promote cardiometabolic problems, or vice versa, or maybe this group with multimorbidities is more likely be investigated.

Adrenal incidentalomas are already found in around 1 in 20 abdominal CT scans, and this rate is likely to increase as imaging improves. So it’s good news that this study supports existing recommendations, which say that follow-up imaging in the 90% of incidentalomas that are smaller than 4 cm diameter is unnecessary.

From https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2019/07/03/ann-robinsons-journal-review-3-july-2019/

New discoveries offer possible Cushing’s disease cure

LOS ANGELES — More than a century has passed since the neurosurgeon and pathologist Harvey Cushing first discovered the disease that would eventually bear his name, but only recently have several key discoveries offered patients with the condition real hope for a cure, according to a speaker here.

There are several challenges clinicians confront in the diagnosis and treatment of Cushing’s disease, Shlomo Melmed, MB, ChB, FRCP, MACP, dean, executive vice president and professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said during a plenary presentation. Patients who present with Cushing’s disease typically have depression, impaired mental function and hypertension and are at high risk for stroke, myocardial infarction, thrombosis, dyslipidemia and other metabolic disorders, Melmed said. Available therapies, which range from surgery and radiation to the somatostatin analogue pasireotide (Signifor LAR, Novartis), are often followed by disease recurrence. Cushing’s disease is fatal without treatment; the median survival if uncontrolled is about 4.5 years, Melmed said.

“This truly is a metabolic, malignant disorder,” Melmed said. “The life expectancy today in patients who are not controlled is apparently no different from 1930.”

The outlook for Cushing’s disease is now beginning to change, Melmed said. New targets are emerging for treatment, and newly discovered molecules show promise in reducing the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and pituitary tumor size.

“Now, we are seeing the glimmers of opportunity and optimism, that we can identify specific tumor drivers — SST5, [epidermal growth factor] receptor, cyclin inhibitors — and we can start thinking about personalized, precision treatment for these patients with a higher degree of efficacy and optimism than we could have even a year or 2 ago,” Melmed said. “This will be an opportunity for us to broaden the horizons of our investigations into this debilitating disorder.”

Challenges in diagnosis, treatment

Overall, about 10% of the U.S. population harbors a pituitary adenoma, the most common type of pituitary disorder, although the average size is only about 6 mm and 40% of them are not visible, Melmed said. In patients with Cushing’s disease, surgery is effective in only about 60% to 70% of patients for initial remission, and overall, there is about a 60% chance of recurrence depending on the surgery center, Melmed said. Radiation typically leads to hypopituitarism, whereas surgical or biochemical adrenalectomy is associated with adverse effects and morbidity. Additionally, the clinical features of hypercortisolemia overlap with many common illnesses, such as obesity, hypertension and type 2 diabetes.

“There are thousands of those patients for every patient with Cushing’s disease who we will encounter,” Melmed said.

The challenge for the treating clinician, Melmed said, is to normalize cortisol and ACTH with minimal morbidity, to resect the tumor mass or control tumor growth, preserve pituitary function, improve quality of life and achieve long-term control without recurrence.

“This is a difficult challenge to meet for all of us,” Melmed said.

Available options

Pituitary surgery is typically the first-line option offered to patients with Cushing’s disease, Melmed said, and there are several advantages, including rapid initial remission, a one-time cost and potentially curing the disease. However, there are several disadvantages with surgery; patients undergoing surgery are at risk for postoperative venous thromboembolism, persistent hypersecretion of ACTH, adenoma persistence or recurrence, and surgical complications.

Second-line options are repeat surgery, radiation, adrenalectomy or medical therapy, each with its own sets of pros and cons, Melmed said.

“The reality of Cushing’s disease — these patients undergo first surgery and then recur, second surgery and then recur, then maybe radiation and then recur, and then they develop a chronic illness, and this chronic illness is what leads to their demise,” Melmed said. “Medical therapy is appropriate at every step of the spectrum.”

Zebrafish clues

Searching for new options, Melmed and colleagues introduced a pituitary tumor transforming gene discovered in his lab into zebrafish, which caused the fish to develop the hallmark features of Cushing’s disease: high cortisol levels, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In the fish models, researchers observed that cyclin E activity, which drives the production of ACTH, was high.

Melmed and colleagues then screened zebrafish larvae in a search for cyclin E inhibitors to derive a therapeutic molecule and discovered R-roscovitine, shown to repress the expression of proopiomelanocortin (POMC), the pituitary precursor of ACTH.

In fish, mouse and in vitro human cell models, treatment with R-roscovitine was associated with suppressed corticotroph tumor signaling and blocked ACTH production, Melmed said.

“Furthermore, we asked whether or not roscovitine would actually block transcription of the POMC gene,” Melmed said. “It does. We had this molecule (that) suppressed cyclin E and also blocks transcription of POMC leading to blocked production of ACTH.”

In a small, open-label, proof-of-principal study, four patients with Cushing’s disease who received roscovitine for 4 weeks developed normalized urinary free cortisol, Melmed said.

Currently, the FDA Office of Orphan Products Development is funding a multicenter, phase 2, open-label clinical trial that will evaluate the safety and efficacy of two of three potential doses of oral roscovitine (seliciclib) in patients with newly diagnosed, persistent or recurrent Cushing disease. Up to 29 participants will be treated with up to 800 mg per day of oral seliciclib for 4 days each week for 4 weeks and enrolled in sequential cohorts based on efficacy outcomes.

“Given the rarity of the disorder, it will probably take us 2 to 3 years to recruit patients to give us a robust answer,” Melmed said. “This zebrafish model was published in 2011, and we are now in 2019. It has taken us 8 years from publication of the data to, today, going into humans with Cushing’s. Hopefully, this will light the pathway for a phase 2 trial.”

 Offering optimism’

Practitioners face a unique paradigm when treating patients with Cushing’s disease, Melmed said. Available first- and second-line therapy options often are not a cure for many patients, who develop multimorbidity and report a low quality of life.

“Then, we are kept in this difficult cycle of what to do next and, eventually, running out of options,” Melmed said. “Now, we can look at novel, targeted molecules and add those to our armamentarium and at least offer our patients the opportunity to participate in trials, or at least offer the optimism that, over the coming years, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel for their disorder.”

Melmed compared the work to Lucas Cranach’s Fons Juventutis (The Fountain of Youth). The painting, completed in 1446, shows sick people brought by horse-drawn ambulance to a pool of water, only to emerge happy and healthy.

“He was imagining this ‘elixir of youth’ (that) we could offer patients who are very ill and, in fact, that is what we as endocrinologists do,” Melmed said. “We offer our patients these elixirs. These Cushing’s patients are extremely ill. We are trying with all of our molecular work and our understanding of pathogenesis and signaling to create this pool of water for them, where they can emerge with at least an improved quality of life and, hopefully, a normalized mortality. That is our challenge.” – by Regina Schaffer

Reference:

Melmed S. From zebrafish to humans: translating discoveries for the treatment of Cushing’s disease. Presented at: AACE Annual Scientific and Clinical Congress; April 24-28, 2019; Los Angeles.

Disclosure: Melmed reports no relevant financial disclosures.

 

From https://www.healio.com/endocrinology/neuroendocrinology/news/online/%7B585002ad-640f-49e5-8d62-d1853154d7e2%7D/new-discoveries-offer-possible-cushings-disease-cure

%d bloggers like this: