Gene test for growth hormone deficiency developed

A new test developed by University of Manchester and NHS scientists could revolutionise the way children with growth hormone deficiency are diagnosed.

Children suspected of having GHD – which cause growth to slow down or stop and other serious physical problems—currently require a test involving fasting for up to 12 hours.

The fasting is followed by an intravenous infusion in hospital and up to 10 blood tests over half a day to measure growth hormone production.

Because the current test is unreliable, it often has to be done twice before growth hormone injections can be prescribed.

Now the discovery—which the team think could be available within 2 to 5 years -could reduce the process to a single blood test, freeing up valuable time and space for the NHS.

Dr. Adam Stevens from The University of Manchester and Dr. Philip Murray from Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, were part of the team whose results are published in JCI Insight today.

Dr. Stevens said: “We think this is an important development in the way doctors will be able to diagnose growth hormone deficiency – a condition which causes distress to many thousands of children in the UK

“This sort of diagnostic would not be available even a few years ago but thanks to the enormous computing power we have, and advances in genetics, it is now possible for this aspect of care to be made so much easier for patients – and the NHS.

“These volume of data involved is so huge and complicated that traditional data-processing application software is inadequate to deal with it.”

Comparing data from 72 patients with GHD and 26 healthy children, they used high powered computers to examine 30,000 genes—the full gene expression- of each child.

A sophisticated mathematical technique called Random Forest Analysis analysed around three million separate data points to compare different gene patterns between the children with and without GHD.

The research identified 347 genes which when analysed with the computer algorithm can determine whether a child has GHD or not and thus whether they will benefit from treatment.

Growth hormone deficiency (GHD) occurs when the pituitary gland—which is size of a pea- fails to produce enough growth hormone. It more commonly affects children than adults.

Many teenagers with GHD have poor bone strength, fatigue and lack stamina as well as depression, lack of concentration, poor memory and anxiety problems.

GHD occurs in roughly 1 in 5,000 people. Since the mid-1980s, synthetic growth hormones have been successfully used to treat children—and adults—with the deficiency.

Dr. Murray added: “This study provides strong proof of concept, but before it is in a position to be adopted by the NHS, we must carry out a further validation exercise which will involve comparing our new diagnostic with the existing test.

“Once we have crossed that hurdle, we hope to be in a position for this to be adopted within 2 to 5 years – and that can’t come soon enough for these children.”

Child Growth Foundation manager Jenny Child’s daughter has Growth Hormone Deficiency.

She said: Growth Hormone Deficiency isn’t just about growth, as lack of growth hormone impacts the child in many ways, such as lack of strength and they can find it difficult to keep up physically with their peers. It impacts the child’s self-esteem as they are often treated as being much younger, because of their size. Growth hormone treatment allows the child to grow to their genetic potential.

“A growth hormone stimulation test can be very daunting for both child and parents. The test can make the child feel quite unwell and they can experience headaches, nausea and unconsciousness through hypoglycaemia.”

 Explore further: Northern climes make a difference with growth hormone treatment

More information: Philip G. Murray et al. Transcriptomics and machine learning predict diagnosis and severity of growth hormone deficiency, JCI Insight (2018). DOI: 10.1172/jci.insight.93247

Korlym: How an abortion pill turned out to be a treatment for a rare disease

Even though the $550 yellow pills sold as Korlym have a controversial origin as the abortion pill, Leslie Edwin said they “gave me life.”

The 40-year-old Georgia resident lives with Cushing’s syndrome, a potentially deadly condition that causes high levels of the hormone cortisol to wreak havoc on a body. When first diagnosed, she said, she gained about 100 pounds, her blood sugars were “out of control,” and she suffered acne, the inability to sleep and constant anxiety.

“I wouldn’t leave the house,” Edwin said of her first bout with the condition. “I quit my job after a certain point. I just couldn’t keep being in front of people.”

That’s when Edwin endured surgeries, including one to remove her pituitary gland. She went into remission, but then, in 2016, her weight shot up 30 pounds and the anxious feelings returned. Her doctors prescribed Korlym.

The drug’s active ingredient is mifepristone, once called RU-486 and better known as the abortion pill because it causes a miscarriage when taken early in a pregnancy. Nearly two decades ago, Danco Laboratories won approval to market Mifeprex in the United States as the abortion drug, with tight restrictions on use. Corcept Therapeutics, a Silicon Valley-based drug company, began marketing Korlym six years ago as a specialty drug for about 10,000 rare-disease patients such as Edwin.

The difference in price between Korlym and Mifeprex is striking, even though the ingredients are the same: One 200-milligram pill to prompt an abortion costs about $80. In contrast, a 300-milligram pill prescribed for Cushing’s runs about $550 before discounts. (Patients wanting an abortion take only one pill. People with Cushing’s often take up to three pills a day for months or years.)

Joseph Belanoff, chief executive of the drug’s maker, Corcept, said Korlym’s average cost per patient is $180,000 annually and concedes that “we have an expensive drug. There’s no getting around that.” But, he said, he believes Corcept has a “social contract” to take care of patients and pledged that any patient who is prescribed Korlym will get it regardless of insurance coverage or costs.

The story of Korlym highlights how America’s drug development system can turn an old drug into a new one that treats relatively few — but often very desperate — patients.

When the Food and Drug Administration approved Korlym in 2012, it was designated as an orphan drug, giving Corcept seven years of market exclusivity as well as other economic incentives. Congress approved orphan drug incentives to encourage the development of medicines for rare diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 patients. Since the drug’s approval, Korlym’s price has risen about 150 percent, and last year the company’s revenue nearly doubled to $159.2 million and it reported a net income of $129.1 million. (Korlym is the company’s only product, and it treats about 1,000 patients in the United States.)

Belanoff said the profits from Korlym pay for the company’s past spending on the drug’s research and development as well as its effort to create new drugs. The company recently reported an encouraging Phase 2 trial update on Korlym’s successor, relacorilant, a drug that could treat Cushing’s without the side effects for some women of endometrial thickening and vaginal bleeding that can occur with Korlym.

The company’s pipeline is also full of potential oncology drugs that hold the promise of using molecules to influence the cortisol receptors, with wide-ranging effects in the body. Korlym in combination with another drug is being tested for the treatment of metastatic triple-negative breast cancer, which tends to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer. And relacorilant is in the very early stages of testing to treat castration-resistant prostate cancer.

While many of the second-generation drugs are not related to Korlym structurally, Korlym did “provide the funding. . . . If there had not been orphan-drug pricing and the [Orphan Drug] Act, you would have to look for a different way to develop those drugs,” Belanoff said.

Korlym came to market in 2012 with an average wholesale price of $223.20 per pill before discounts, according to the health-care technology firm Connecture. By December 2017, each pill had an average wholesale price of $549.60 before any discounts or rebates were negotiated for patients.

Teva Pharmaceutical Industries recently announced it had filed an application to produce a generic version of the drug. Teva declined to comment for this report.

A ‘pioneering substance’

Cushing’s syndrome happens when the body produces too much cortisol, which normally helps keep the cardiovascular system functioning well and allows the body to turn proteins, carbohydrates and fats into energy. But too much cortisol can be destructive. It can cause cognitive difficulties, depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, bone loss and, in some cases, Type 2 diabetes. Those affected by the syndrome can develop a fatty hump between their shoulders and a rounded face. Without treatment, patients can die of a variety of complications, including sepsis after the hormone compromises the immune system.

Mifepristone, the active ingredient in Korlym, helps Cushing’s patients by blocking the body’s ability to process cortisol. It induces an abortion by blocking another of the body’s receptors, for progesterone, which causes the uterine wall to break down and the pregnancy to end.

When the FDA approved Korlym for a specific set of Cushing’s patients, the agency required a “TERMINATION OF PREGNANCY” warning box at the top of the label.

Endocrinologist Constantine Stratakis, scientific director at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, who specializes in treating people with Cushing’s syndrome, calls mifepristone a “pioneering substance” because it “has a lot of crossover” to other receptors in the body.

That means the drug has a lot of potential uses. Belanoff and Alan Schatzberg, a Stanford University psychiatrist and scientist, co-founded Corcept in 1998 to explore whether mifepristone could help treat major depression. In 2002, Schatzberg said the drug “may be the equivalent of shock treatments in a pill.” But clinical trials were not successful.

Social contract

By 2007, Corcept had found another possibility and filed an application to see whether mifepristone might work for Cushing’s patients.

Developing the drug cost about $300 million, according to Belanoff, and involved long-term toxicology tests to ensure that patients could safely take high doses for months or years. Korlym is approved to treat Cushing’s patients who have failed to relieve their symptoms through surgery or do not qualify for surgery, so some patients expect to take it for the rest of their lives while others just a few months.

Most patients are covered by private insurance, Belanoff said, but Medicare and Medicaid pay for the drug as well. According to Medicare Part D data, 52 Korlym patients cost Medicare $2.6 million in 2013. Two years later, 115 beneficiaries filed claims of $11.4 million.

Edwin is on private insurance and describes herself as being in “a really high tax bracket,” yet she never paid more than $25 a month through Corcept’s patient assistance program . She stopped taking the drug last year after her Cushing’s symptoms retreated.

“Across the board, it would be very difficult to find any patient that pays the full price,” said Edwin, who volunteers as president of the nonprofit patient advocacy group Cushing’s Support and Research Foundation.

The small organization, which reported $50,000 in contributions and grants in 2015, notes on its website that Corcept as well as Novartis Oncology provide financial support to the organization. The group’s federal tax filing details that the majority of its expenses go to distributing a quarterly newsletter, contacting members and patients “to promote mission,” and referring patients to doctors.

Specialty drugs such as Korlym often have sky-high price tags and are often distributed through special pharmacy programs. Drug companies commonly work with insurers and patient assistance programs to lower the patient’s out-of-pocket costs.

But for Corcept, the effort to brand the drug as a Cushing’s medication was also important, Belanoff said: “We were starting with a notorious drug.”

“There is a real infrastructure in caring for these patients,” he said. “It is not just like getting your medicine at [a drug store] and figuring out what to do with it.”

Sherwin D’Souza, an internal medicine doctor at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Idaho, prescribed Korlym for the first time last year to Vonda Huddleston, who was uninsured. D’Souza said he knew Corcept would provide financial assistance until Huddleston could get insurance to help pay for surgery to remove a tumor in her adrenal gland that is suspected of causing her high cortisol levels.

Huddleston, though, did not feel well on the drug and gained weight. D’Souza took her off Korlym and scheduled surgery. “I was sort of trying to buy time and treat her conditions,” D’Souza said. “It’s very expensive . . . but they do have a very good program for patients in need of the drug.”

Kaiser Health News

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Detailed MRI Analysis Provides Correlations with Clinical Features and Response to Treatment in Cushing’s Disease

Detailed imaging analysis of patients with Cushing’s disease (CD) and other disorders caused by pituitary adenomas (tumors that arise from the pituitary, a small gland in the brain) provides correlation with clinical characteristics and treatment response, a new Turkish study reports.

The research, “Clinicopathological significance of baseline T2-weighted signal intensity in functional pituitary adenomas,” appeared in the journal Pituitary.

Diagnosis of pituitary adenomas is often done with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which provides data on the tumor’s localization, its invasiveness, as well as cell death and other changes. However, MRI does not enable precise evaluation of the tumor’s hormone production and behavior.

Studies on T2-weighted signal intensity (T2-WSI) — one of the basic parameters in MRI scans that highlights fat and water in the body — shows that it correlates with collagen content, degree of fibrosis (scarring), amyloid protein accumulation, and granulation pattern of somatotroph adenomas, which produce excessive levels of growth hormone, causing acromegaly (a hormonal disorder that results from too much growth hormone in the body).

Evaluation of granulation patterns is key in predicting response to somatostatin analogues (SSAs) treatment, the researchers observed. SSAs are intended to stop excess hormone production.

In contrast, analysis of T2-WSI in corticotroph adenomas — benign tumors typical in Cushing’s disease patients that release elevated levels of adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) – is still lacking.

The research team assessed the correlation of T2-WSI with clinical features, granulation patterns, and response to treatment in patients with functional pituitary adenomas (FPAs), which are collectively characterized by excessive production of one or more hormones.

Specifically, scientists focused on 29 patients with Cushing’s disease, 87 with acromegaly, and 78 with prolactinoma, a type of benign pituitary tumor that produces elevated amounts of prolactin.

Results showed that while most somatotroph adenomas (53%) were hypointense, which means a darker image on MRI, the majority of prolactinomas (55%) and corticotroph adenomas (45%) were at least generally hyperintense, meaning lighter on image.

Data also revealed that hyperintense somatotroph adenomas were larger, sparsely granulated, and exhibited reduced shrinkage after treatment with SSAs.

In contrast, hypointense tumors were associated with higher levels of baseline insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-1% ULN, a predictor of insulin sensitivity, and a better response to SSAs.

In women with prolactinomas, hyperintensity correlated with smaller tumor diameter. In turn, hypointense prolactinomas were linked with younger age at diagnosis, higher baseline prolactin levels, and resistance to treatment with a dopamine agonist.

Scientists also found that hyperintense corticotroph adenomas correlated with larger tumor size and a sparsely granulated pattern. No difference was found between hyper and hypointense adenomas on cortisol and ACTH levels.

Investigators also reported that T2-WSI was not correlated with better surgical outcomes or with recurrent Cushing’s disease. Analysis of tumor shrinkage in these patients was not possible, the researchers noted.

“Although in present there is no immediate clinical application, we believe that if medical shrinkage of corticotrophs ever became a part of clinical practice, similar analyses could be performed in the future,” the researchers wrote.

“Further studies with larger series are required in order to make stronger suggestions,” they added.

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2018/03/23/detailed-mri-analysis-correlates-with-cushings-disease-clinical-features/

ACTH/Cortisol Ratio May Be Simple, Reliable Test to Diagnose Cushing’s Disease

The ratio between adrenocorticotropic hormone levels and cortisol levels in the blood is higher among Cushing’s disease patients than in healthy people, a new study has found, suggesting that measurement could be used to help diagnose the disease.

Also, higher values at diagnosis could predict if the disease will recur and indicate larger and more invasive tumors.

The research, “The Utility of Preoperative ACTH/Cortisol Ratio for the Diagnosis and Prognosis of Cushing’s Disease,” was published in the Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice.

Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is characterized by excess levels of cortisol. In patients with suspected CS, clinicians recommend testing late-night salivary or plasma (blood) cortisol, 24-hour urine-free cortisol (UC), as well as morning cortisol levels after low-dose suppression with dexamethasone, a corticosteroid.

CS may be ACTH-dependent or ACTH-independent, meaning that the high cortisol levels are caused by excess ACTH production.

Patients with CD have elevated levels of ACTH. A tumor, usually an adenoma, causes the pituitary gland to produce excess levels of ACTH, which stimulate the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol usually inhibits ACTH production. However, in CD patients, this feedback mechanism is absent.

Despite extensive research and clinical data, the variable and usually nonspecific signs and symptoms of CD still represent relevant challenges for diagnosis. Clinical manifestations must be associated with biochemical tests, which often have led to conflicting results.

Studies showed that although ACTH levels correlate with the size of the pituitary adenoma, the levels of cortisol do not increase as much. In fact, lower cortisol/ACTH ratios have been reported in patients with macroadenoma – which is greater than 10 millimeters in size – than in those with microadenoma, which is smaller than 10 millimeters.

Conversely, the research team hypothesized that besides their utility for determining the cause of CS, the inverse ratio – ACTH/cortisol – also may be useful for diagnosis.

The team evaluated the pretreatment plasma ACTH/cortisol levels in CS patients with excess cortisol production due to abnormal pituitary or adrenal function. Data from patients were compared with that of individuals without CS.

The study included 145 CS patients diagnosed from 2007 to 2016, 119 patients with CD, 26 with ACTH-independent CS (AICS), and 114 controls with no CS.

Patients’ clinical, laboratory, imaging, postsurgical and follow-up data were analyzed.

Results showed that patients with CD had a significantly higher basal ACTH/cortisol ratio than controls or those with AICS.

“These results showed ACTH/cortisol ratio might be a simple and useful test for the diagnosis of ACTH-dependent CS,” the researchers wrote.

Importantly, the scientists observed that a ACTH/cortisol ratio above 2.5 indicated identified 82 percent of positive CS cases and 63 percent of controls.

Overall, “an ACTH/cortisol ratio [greater than] 2.5 would be beneficial to diagnose CD together with other diagnostic tests,” they concluded.

Patients with recurrent CD showed higher pretreatment ACTH levels and ACTH/cortisol ratio than those who achieved sustained remission. CD patients also exhibited more invasive, atypical and larger tumors, as well as lower postoperative remission and higher recurrence rates.

“Higher ACTH/cortisol ratio might predict poorer prognosis,” the investigators said.

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2018/03/16/acth-cortisol-ratio-reliable-test-diagnose-cushings-disease/

Case Report Shows Rare Adrenal Tumors Associated with Cushing’s Disease

Pituitary tumors that produce too much adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) have been associated with the development of rare tumors on the adrenal glands, called adrenal myelolipomas, for the first time in a case report.

The study, “Case report of a bilateral adrenal myelolipoma associated with Cushing disease,” was published in the journal Medicine.

Myelolipomas, composed of mature fat cells and blood-forming cells, are usually asymptomatic and do not produce hormones. In many cases, these tumors are detected by accident when patients undergo imaging scans for other conditions.

The cause of these tumors is unknown, but due to their benign nature, they do not spread to other parts of the body. However, they can grow up to 34 centimeters (about 13 inches), leading to tissue death and hemorrhage.

Researchers at Soon Chun Hyang University College of Medicine in Seoul, Korea, described the case of a 52-year-old man with myelolipoma possibly caused by an ACTH-secreting pituitary tumor.

During a routine checkup, researchers detected a mass in the patient’s spleen. Further abdominal evaluations identified tissue lesions in both adrenal glands consistent with myelolipoma. Besides the masses, the patient did not show any other Cushing-associated physical characteristics.

However, the patient’s ACTH levels were two times higher than the normal upper limit. Cortisol levels were also increased and unresponsive to low-dose dexamethasone treatment.

No additional lesions were found that could help explain the high ACTH and cortisol levels. But analysis of blood samples collected from the veins draining the pituitary glands revealed the right gland was producing too much ACTH, strongly suggesting Cushing’s disease.

Both the left adrenal gland and pituitary tumor were surgically removed. The samples collected during surgery confirmed the benign nature of the adrenal tumors, and the diagnosis of abnormal, ACTH-positive pituitary gland tissue.

Three days after the surgeries, hormone levels were back to normal. But a follow-up evaluation five months later again showed increased ACTH levels. Cortisol levels, however, were normal.

For the next seven years, the patient was evaluated every six months. During a five-year period, the size of the right adrenal gland was found to have grown. Imaging analysis confirmed the existence of small, new lesions in both pituitary glands.

“This case confers valuable information about the clinical course of adrenal myelolipoma associated with Cushing disease,” the researchers said. It also “supports the notion that ACTH can be associated with the development of bilateral adrenal myelolipomas.”

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2018/03/08/bilateral-adrenal-myelolipoma-associated-with-cushing-disease-case-report/

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