Unmet needs in Cushing’s Syndrome: the Patients

Abstract

Background

Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is a rare condition of chronically elevated cortisol levels resulting in diverse comorbidities, many of which endure beyond successful treatment affecting the quality of life. Few data are available concerning patients’ experiences of diagnosis, care and persistent comorbidities.

Objective

To assess CS patients’ perspectives on the diagnostic and care journey to identify unmet therapeutic needs.

Methods

A 12-item questionnaire was circulated in 2019 by the World Association for Pituitary Organisations. A parallel, 13-item questionnaire assessing physician perceptions on CS patient experiences was performed.

Results

Three hundred twenty CS patients from 30 countries completed the questionnaire; 54% were aged 35–54 and 88% were female; 41% were in disease remission. The most burdensome symptom was obesity/weight gain (75%). For 49% of patients, time to diagnosis was over 2 years. Following treatment, 88.4% of patients reported ongoing symptoms including, fatigue (66.3%), muscle weakness (48.8%) and obesity/weight gain (41.9%). Comparisons with delay in diagnosis were significant for weight gain (P = 0.008) and decreased libido (P = 0.03). Forty physicians completed the parallel questionnaire which showed that generally, physicians poorly estimated the prevalence of comorbidities, particularly initial and persistent cognitive impairment. Only a minority of persistent comorbidities (occurrence in 1.3–66.3%; specialist treatment in 1.3–29.4%) were managed by specialists other than endocrinologists. 63% of patients were satisfied with treatment.

Conclusion

This study confirms the delay in diagnosing CS. The high prevalence of persistent comorbidities following remission and differences in perceptions of health between patients and physicians highlight a probable deficiency in effective multidisciplinary management for CS comorbidities.

Introduction

Cushing’s syndrome (CS) is a morbid endocrine condition due to prolonged exposure to high circulating cortisol levels (123). Hypercortisolism may cause irreversible physical and psychological changes in several tissues, leading to debilitating morbidities which persist over the long term after the resolution of excessive hormone levels, such as cardiovascular complications, metabolic and skeletal disorders, infections and neuropsychiatric disturbances (34). Even patients who have been biochemically ‘cured’ for over 10 years have a residual overall higher risk of mortality, mostly from circulatory disease and diabetes (5). Moreover, people with a history of CS suffer from impaired quality of life (QoL) (6). Several studies suggest that the prevalence of persistent comorbidities is correlated with the duration of exposure to cortisol excess (78). However, as the signs and symptoms of CS overlap with common diseases such as the metabolic syndrome and depression, the time taken to diagnose CS is often long, resulting in a significant number of patients with persistent sequelae and impairments in QoL (69).

Given the burden of the disease, ideal CS treatment would include early diagnosis, curative surgery and multidisciplinary care of comorbidities both pre- and post-cure of CS, including the psychological dimension of the patient’s disease experience (10). Few data are available about patients’ perceptions of the medical journey from first symptoms to diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. The aim of this study was, therefore, to explore CS patients’ experiences of symptoms, diagnosis, care and treatment satisfaction around the world and to compare patients’ perceptions of CS with those of physicians.

Methods

Patient questionnaire design

A 12-item patient questionnaire was developed based on the generally understood clinical characteristics and symptomology of CS, aiming to assess patients’ experiences of symptoms, diagnosis, care and treatment satisfaction (12) (Supplementary File 1, see section on supplementary materials given at the end of this article). The questionnaire was initially offered in English and made available via the SurveyMonkey online platform from March to May 2019. The survey was completed anonymously and required no specific participant identification or any details that could be used to identify individual participants. In addition to basic demographics (i.e. country of residence, sex, age and highest educational level attained), the questionnaire asked ten multiple-choice and two open questions. The survey was shared by the World Association for Pituitary Organisations (WAPO), Adrenal Net, Cushing’s Support & Research Foundation and the Pituitary Foundation, as well as being distributed to local patient associations. As a second step, the questionnaire was translated into eight additional languages (French, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian and German) and was recirculated by the WAPO, Adrenal Net and China Hypercortisolism Patient Alliance to the different local patient associations for distribution in November 2019. As this was a non-interventional, anonymous patient survey, distributed by the patient associations themselves, and not initiated or funded by a research or educational institution, no ethical review was required. Written consent was obtained from each respondent after full explanation of the purpose and nature of the survey.

Comparative physician survey

In addition, a 13-item physician questionnaire was developed to assess physicians’ perspectives on CS symptoms and comorbidities. This physician questionnaire was conducted by HRA Pharma Rare Diseases at the 2019 European Congress of Endocrinology, in Lyon, France. This anonymous questionnaire was completed by 40 qualified physicians. The responses from the patient survey were compared for context with the physicians’ estimates of the prevalence of CS symptoms and comorbidities. Although the physician questionnaire was conducted independently of the patient questionnaire, and used a different question structure, the comparison with the current patient questionnaire is included to further enrich and contextualise the patient responses.

Data analysis

All responses and answers were collected, coded and analysed using Microsoft Excel. Data preparation involved removing duplicate answers, or where possible analysing and reclassifying qualitative responses reported as ‘other’, based on the accompanying details to new or existing response options.

Statistical methodology

Complementary statistical analyses using SAS software were performed using the chi-square and Fisher tests, depending on the cell counts, to compare (i) the time between first symptoms and diagnosis and the persistence of symptoms and (ii) persistence of symptoms, with the specialities of the physicians currently treating the respondents. Frequency distribution of a particular variable was displayed and compared with the frequency distribution of the comparator variable. A significance level of 0.05 was applied.

Results

Demographic characteristics

Three hundred twenty patients from 30 countries completed the patient questionnaire, with 27% (n  = 87) coming from the United Kingdom and 14% (n  = 44) from the United States of America. More than half (53.7%, n = 172) of the patients were aged between 35 and 54 years, and 88.4% (n  = 283) were female. The majority of patients (53.1%, n = 170) had undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications (Table 1).

Table 1Patient demographics.

Sex N = 319a
 Female 283 (88.4%)
 Male 36 (11.3%)
Age group N = 320
 18–24 years 16
 25–34 years 49
 35–44 years 71
 45–54 years 101
 55–64 years 54
 65–74 years 24
 ≥75 years 5
Regionb N = 320
 Western Europe 222
 North America 60
 China 16
 Australasia 14
 South America 5
 Africa 3
Education N = 320
 High school graduate/secondary education diploma 35%
 Undergraduate degree 25.6%
 Post-graduate degree 27.5%
 Prefer not to say 10.6%
Time from first symptoms to diagnosis N = 320
 0–6 months 18.4%
 6–12 months 15.6%
 1–2 years 14.4%
 2–3 years 18.4%
 3–5 years 11.6%
 5–10 years 8.4%
 10–15 years 7.5%
 15–20 years 0.9%
 20+ years 1.9%
 Unknown 2.8%

aOne patient responded ‘non-binary’. bWestern Europe: United Kingdom (n  = 87), the Netherlands (n  = 38), France (n  = 37), Spain (n  = 12), Denmark (n  = 10), Norway (n  = 9), Germany (n  = 6), Italy (n  = 5), Ireland (n  = 4), Belgium (n  = 4), Poland (n  = 4), Sweden (n  = 2), Malta (n  = 2), Switzerland (n  = 1), Czech Republic (n  = 1); Africa: South Africa (n  = 1), Gabon (n  = 1), Zimbabwe (n  = 1); Australasia: Australia (n  = 8), New Zealand (n  = 6); South America: Colombia (n  = 2), Bolivia (n  = 1), Argentina (n  = 1), Brazil (n  = 1); North America: United States of America (n  = 44), Canada (n  = 13), Costa Rica (n  = 1), Mexico (n  = 1), Dominican Republic (n  = 1).

Time to diagnosis

The time to diagnosis from first reporting of CS symptoms was declared to be within 2 years for 48.4% (n  = 155) (Table 1) and was over 2 years in 48.7% (n  = 156) and over 3 years in 30.3% (n  = 97).

Initial symptoms

A broad range of signs and symptoms were initially noticed by patients, with weight gain, hirsutism or acne, fatigue, sleep disturbances, depressive symptoms, muscle weakness, anxiety and hypertension all being reported in over 50% of patients (Table 2). Obesity/weight gain was most commonly cited (75%, n = 240) as being burdensome. Fatigue, feelings of depression or mood problems, sleep disturbances, muscle weakness and hirsutism were also very commonly (>40%) mentioned as being burdensome. Burdensome symptoms classified as ‘other’ were rare (<1%) and included issues such as hormonal problems and dental problems.

Table 2Patient-reported symptoms (multiple answers were possible).

Symptoms first noticed (%) Most burdensome perceived symptoms before diagnosis (%)
Weight gain 85.0 75.0
Hirsutism/acne 76.3 42.8
Fatigue 66.3 54.1
Sleep disturbances 64.4 41.9
Skin problems 64.7 21.3
Depression/mood problems 58.8 48.1
Muscle weakness 57.8 43.4
Anxiety 54.1 39.1
Hypertension 52.5 22.2
Loss of concentration 45.0 28.4
Memory problems 41.9 30.3
Menstrual disturbances 35.6 12.5
Decreased libido 32.5 12.5
Bone problems 23.1 14.4
Infections 23.8 10.3
Glucose intolerance 17.2 8.4
Blood clot 5.3
Pain(s) 3.1
Vision problems 2.8
Headache 2.5
Cravings 1.6
Other 8.4 1.9

Person who made the initial CS diagnosis

In 53.8% (n  = 172) of cases, an endocrinologist made the initial diagnosis of CS or prescribed the first screening tests, Table 3. General practitioners made 18.1% of diagnoses (n  = 58), in the remaining cases a diversity of other physicians directly or indirectly contributed to make the diagnosis, as indicated in Table 3. A small but noticeable number (5.6%, n = 18) of patients self-diagnosed and then convinced their physician to order the diagnostic tests.

Table 3Patient perception of physician specialty.

Specialty Person who made the initial diagnosis or suspected Cushing’s syndrome (%) (n = 320) Physicians involved in the management of Cushing’s syndrome (%) (n = 320)
Endocrinologist 53.8 97.8
General practitioner/family doctor 18.1 56.3
Self-diagnosed 5.6
Hospital/emergency doctor 3.8
Internist 2.5 0.9
Gynecologist 1.9 14.1
Cardiologist 1.9 13.4
Bone specialist 1.9 14.1
Dermatologist 1.6 11.6
Haematologist 0.9 3.8
Ophthalmologist 0.9 3.1
Nurse 0.9 2.5
Radiologist 0.9 0.6
Family or friend 0.9
Psychiatrist or psycologist 0.9 23.4
Healer 0.6 2.2
Surgeon 0.6
Oncologist 0.3 6.6
Gastroenterologist 0.3 1.3
Neurologist 0.3 4.1
Others 1.6
Physiotherapist 14.4
Dietician 9.7
Neurosurgeon 8.1
Social worker 4.1
Ear, nose and throat specialist 1.6
Sports physician 1.3
Sleep specialist 0.9
Urologist 0.6
Orthopaedic surgeon 0.3

Response to treatment

At the time of answering the questionnaire, 55.8% (n  = 178) of patients were not in remission. 40.8% of patients (n  = 130) were in true biochemical remission (Fig. 1). This latter group was a composite including patients who responded: ‘In remission (no treatment)’ (16.3%, n = 52), ‘Received an operation to remove adrenal glands’ (22.9%, n = 73) and ‘Treated with hydrocortisone’ (1.6%, n = 5). Thirteen percent of the patients (n  = 41) were on cortisol-lowering treatment and 6.6% of the patients (n  = 21) had not had or were awaiting surgery. Following treatment for CS, 11.6% of the patients (n  = 37) reported having no further symptoms related to the condition, with 88.4% (n  = 283) still symptomatic. Of the total population (n  = 320), the most bothersome symptoms were fatigue (66.3%, n = 212), muscle weakness (48.8%, n = 156) and obesity/weight gain (41.9%, n = 134) (Table 4).

Figure 1View Full Size
Figure 1
Patient description of their current clinical situation (n = 319). The category ‘Disease in true remission’ combines scores for ‘In remission (no treatment)’ (16.3%), ‘Received an operation to remove adrenal glands’ (22.9%) and ‘Treated with hydrocortisone’ (1.6%). One person did not complete the question.

Citation: Endocrine Connections 11, 7; 10.1530/EC-22-0027

Table 4Persistent symptoms.

Symptom Persistent bothersome symptomsa (%) (n = 320) Treatment received for symptoms (%) (n = 320)
Fatigue 66.3 15.9
Muscle weakness 48.8 17.2
Weight gain 41.9 8.4
Depression, mood problems 36.9 28.8
Poor concentration 35.9 4.1
Memory problems 33.8 5.6
Sleep problems 33.1 14.1
Anxiety 30.6 14.7
Decreased libido 25.3 4.1
Bone problems 19.1 21.9
Hypertension 18.4 29.4
Hirsutism 17.5 4.1
Skin problems 16.6 6.9
Glucose intolerance 8.8 10
Menstrual problems 9.1 4.7
Infections 7.2 4.7
Blood clot 3.8 2.2
Acne 2.8 1.3
Other 4.4 5.3
No treatment 1.3 8.1
Only hydrocortisone 1.6

aUp to five answers were possible.

Comparison of time to diagnosis and persistence of symptoms

To compare the time to diagnosis and the persistence of symptoms following treatment, an analysis of a number of variables was performed comparing the group with persistent symptoms after treatment (n  = 283) with those who did not (n  = 37) in terms of time to diagnosis. Patients with a longer time to diagnosis reported significantly more frequent weight gain (P = 0.008), and more frequent reduced libido (P = 0.03) after treatment. Although not statistically significant, there was a strong trend towards patients reporting a longer time to diagnosis and a greater frequency of persistent perceived bone issues after treatment (P = 0.053), as well anxiety (P = 0.07) and depression/mood concerns (P = 0.08).

Physicians involved in follow-up

Once diagnosed, almost all patients (97.8%, n = 313) were managed by an endocrinologist, followed by a GP/family doctor (56.3%, n = 180). A psychiatrist/psychologist was involved in 23.4% (n  = 75), followed by a physiotherapist (14.4%, n = 46), rheumatologist (14.4%, n = 46), gynecologist (14.1%, n = 45), cardiologist (13.4%, n = 43), dermatologist (11.6%, n = 37) and a dietician (9.7%, n = 31) (Table 3).

Treatment of persistent symptoms

Table 4 shows the prevalence of persistent symptoms after treatment, common ongoing comorbidities included fatigue, muscle weakness and weight gain. The percentage of patients who were treated for comorbidities is also shown. Noticeable undertreatment occurred for many symptoms, for example, fatigue was a consistent symptom for 66.3% (n  = 212), whereas only 15.9% (n  = 51) were receiving ongoing care for fatigue and persistent muscle weakness was reported in 48.8% (n  = 156) with 17.2% (n  = 55) of patients being treated for this (Table 4).

The high frequency of persistent symptoms suggests that patients were not followed-up by specific specialists, for example of the 212 patients with persistent fatigue, only 60 (28.2%) were seeing a psychiatrist/psychologist (Table 4). Enduring poor concentration and memory problems were relatively frequent (35.9%, 33.8%) but were rarely treated by a specialist (4.1 and 5.6%, respectively).

Three-quarters of patients reported that their work life had been affected (75%, n = 240). Social life (65.3%, n = 209), family life (57.8%, n = 185), interpersonal relationships (51.6%, n = 165), and sexual life (48.8%, n = 155) had also been significantly affected by their illness. Thirty-seven percent of the patients (n  = 118) reported that their economic situation had been negatively affected. ‘Other’ responses for this question included reductions in self-esteem, self-image and self-confidence. Sixty-three percent of patients (193/305) were satisfied with their treatment and 36.7% (n  = 112) were not.

Comparative analysis physician questionnaire

In the complementary physician questionnaire (n  = 40), unlike the patient questionnaire where most respondents were from the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Netherlands and France, most of the physicians surveyed were from Western Europe, although there were representatives from other parts of the world. In the physician questionnaire, 83% (n  = 33) were endocrinologists, 13% (n  = 5) internal medicine specialists and 5% (n  = 2) other disciplines. Sixty percent (n  = 24) had over 10 years clinical experience, and 93% (n  = 37) were experienced in the treatment of CS, seeing an average of 10 patients per year. Of the specialities involved in the care of CS, 96% of physicians (n  = 38) considered endocrinologists to be involved, 48% (n  = 19) included family doctors/GPs, 20% (n  = 8) cardiologists, 28% (n  = 11) psychiatrists/psychologists and 28% (n  = 11) included dieticians. These results are consistent with the patients’ perceptions, with the exception of dieticians, who only 10% of patients reported seeing (Table 3).

Figure 2A compares the frequency of common symptoms that patients found to be most burdensome during the active phase of the disease, with what physicians thought were the most common symptoms. Although for methodological reasons a statistical comparison was not possible and the comparisons are approximate, these findings suggest that physicians’ perceptions of the prevalence of symptoms were different from those reported by patients. A majority of physicians (Fig. 2A) inadequately estimated (both underestimated and overestimated) the presence of depression, muscle weakness, cognitive impairment, hypertension, bone problems and glucose intolerance. Figure 2B compares the physician’s perception of the frequency of persistent symptoms with the patients’ experience of persistent symptoms. A majority of physicians differently estimated the prevalence of persistent cognitive impairment, muscle weakness, depressive symptoms and weight gain.

Figure 2View Full Size
Figure 2
(A) Physician (n = 40) perception of patient comorbidities (left) and patient reports of the most burdensome symptoms during active CS (right). (B) Physician (n = 40) perception of CS symptoms after cure (right) and patient reports of persistent burdensome symptoms after treatment (left). Only the relevant common results from the physician and patient surveys are shown above. The physician survey included categories ‘insulin resistance’, ‘dyslipidaemia’, ‘cardiovascular complications’ and ‘psychosis’, which are not shown because these same categories were not reported in the patient survey. In the patient survey, responses for the categories: ‘anxiety’ were regrouped with ‘depressive symptoms’ and ‘memory problems’ and ‘poor concentration’ were regrouped into the ‘cognitive impairment’ category for easier comparison with the physician survey.

Citation: Endocrine Connections 11, 7; 10.1530/EC-22-0027

Discussion

This large, international CS patient survey confirms previous findings that despite complaining of multiple symptoms, there is a mean 34-month delay in diagnosis (9). In addition, despite treatment resulting in biochemical remission, patients report persistent comorbidities with associated psychological and social impacts that negatively affect the QoL (1112). In the present survey a majority of patients reported that they are not being managed by the appropriate specialists, suggesting an absence in multidisciplinary care that may be secondary to an underestimation of the sequelae of CS by endocrinologists.

The present survey confirmed that no specific symptom initiated a diagnosis, but rather a range of burdensome symptoms occurring with similar frequency to those reported in previous surveys (12), with the notable difference in that in a USA-German survey, cognitive and psychological symptoms were bothersome for 61% of US and 66% of German patients (13), whereas in the present survey 38% considered depression/mood problems burdensome. Such differences may be a result of different terms being used to describe depression or mood symptoms as well as cultural differences between populations.

The distribution of time to diagnosis, with around 50% diagnosed after 2 years of symptoms and approximately 30% still undiagnosed after 3 years is of a similar magnitude to previous surveys, where 67% of patients waited at least 3 years until diagnosis (14). In the CSFR study in 2014, patients waited a median of 5 years until diagnosis (15). Even though the estimated time to diagnosis may be similar to those in previous studies – 34 months a recent meta-analysis (9) and 2 years in the ERCUSYN database (16) – there is clearly still room for improvement, especially as delayed diagnosis is associated with persistent comorbidities (9171819). Physicians should consider that in patients with diabetes, hypertension and osteoporosis hypercortisolism may be hidden (20). Due to the elevated incidence of mood and cognitive dysfunction at CS diagnosis, questioning the patient whether they feel that ‘something unusual is happening’ such as mood swings and sleeping disorders may be helpful, as a not insignificant proportion of patients self-diagnose CS (15).

Awareness of the clinical presentation patterns of CS should be increased among general practitioners but also in specialists other than endocrinologists. In the current survey, the low proportions of physiotherapists, neurologists, orthopaedic surgeons and psychiatrists identifying CS represent an educational opportunity to improve early diagnosis. It is for instance not widely known that venous thromboembolic events or fragility fractures can be a presenting symptom of CS (2021). It is encouraging that rheumatologists already recommend excluding occult endogenous hypercortisolism as a first cause of muscle weakness (22).

Multidisciplinary care is recommended for the ongoing management of patients after biochemical cure, with a particular emphasis on the QoL, depressive symptoms and anxiety (11). Specialist care is recommended for specific comorbidities, for example physiotherapists are required to help revert musculoskeletal impairment and prevent further deterioration (23), and bone specialists are required to manage the individual patient fracture risk according to the patient’s age and evolution of bone status after surgery (24). In the present survey, almost all patients were treated by endocrinologists and the role of specialists treating particular comorbidities was limited despite the ongoing complaints in patients. This is particularly evident in the high prevalence of muscle weakness, which was rarely managed by physiotherapists. This failure to provide multidisciplinary care may account for why nearly 40% of CS patients were dissatisfied with their treatment.

The exact number of patients with controlled hypercortisolism cannot be evaluated from the questionnaire. The degree of control of hypercortisolism remains debatable in patients treated with cortisol-lowering agents and may not be equivalent to remission following surgery (2526). In the present survey, the vast majority reported persistent and burdensome symptoms despite treatment, which is in line with previous reports of persistent low body satisfaction and high rates of depression and anxiety (27). When compared with longer time to diagnosis, the only comparisons that reached statistical significance were weight gain and decreased libido; whereas, there was a trend towards extended time to diagnosis and worsening of depressive symptoms and anxiety. These findings confirm the need for early diagnosis and treatment as the duration of exposure to hypercortisolism is a predictor of persistent morbidities and long-term impairments in the QoL (15).

Although the parallel physician perception questionnaire was limited by small size and methodological differences in comparison to the patient survey, the results suggest that physicians’ perceptions contrast with patients’ experiences. Physicians tended to underestimate weight gain and cognitive impairment during the active phase of the disease, and underestimate the prevalence of cognitive impairment, depressive symptoms and muscle weakness following treatment. A recent survey on physician vs patient perspectives on postsurgical recovery also highlighted important differences in perceptions, suggestive of poor communication (28). However, these comparisons are limited in that physicians’ estimations may be influenced by the clinical importance of certain symptoms, whereas for patients these may or may not be particularly onerous. Nevertheless, these findings do suggest that some symptoms do not receive enough attention, possibly due to insufficient awareness of these symptoms as real clinical problems.

The strength of this survey is that it includes a large and international population, whereas previous surveys tended to be carried out in individual countries. It informs the quantitative and qualitative understanding of CS patients’ experiences with their treatment journeys and highlights some important lacunae in the management of CS, as well as identifying some differences in physician and patient perceptions about the burden of CS comorbidities.

A limitation in the study design was the inability of the questionnaire to clearly distinguish a subgroup who were biochemically cured and had ongoing symptoms. Indeed, remission was based on patients’ declarations instead of an objective hormone assessment, which is an unavoidable limitation of online surveys. On the other hand, the survey was precisely designed to capture patients’ perceptions about their health status, regardless of having received a diagnosis of “remission” or not from their endocrinologist. Patients who had pituitary surgery were not considered as being “in remission” in order to mitigate the impact of this limitation on the final analysis. The major limitations of this survey also include its cross-sectional design, depending upon an individual assessment at a single time point and relying on patients’ memories. The comparison of the patient and doctor cohorts was limited by having different questionnaire methodologies and the lack of matching of patients and their endocrinologists. The questionnaire results could also not be corroborated against clinical records and no matched control group was assessed. Selection basis was another potential limitation, as patients were recruited through patient associations, which may have skewed the population towards patients with a higher disease burden; moreover, patients with chronic conditions who respond to questionnaires tend to have a low QoL (15).

Conclusion

This international cross-sectional study confirms that symptoms experienced by patients with CS are diverse, burdensome and endure beyond treatment (20). Delays in diagnosis may contribute to persistent symptoms after treatment. Care of patients with persistent comorbidities affecting the QoL (e.g. obesity, cognitive impairment, depression and muscle weakness) could be improved through more frequent multidisciplinary collaboration with healthcare professionals outside of endocrinology.

Supplementary materials

This is linked to the online version of the paper at https://doi.org/10.1530/EC-22-0027.

Declaration of interest

A T participated in research studies, received research grants and honorarium for talks at symposia and boards from HRA Pharma Rare Diseases, Pfizer, Novartis and Recordati Rare Diseases. C A participated in research studies and received honoraria for talks at symposia and participation in advisory boards from HRA Pharma Rare Diseases. E V participated in research studies and received honoraria for talks at symposia and participation in advisory boards from HRA Pharma Rare Diseases and Recordati Rare Diseases. I C is an investigator in studies using relacorilant (Corcept Therapeutics) in patients with hypercortisolism and has received consulting fees from Corcept Therapeutics and HRA Pharma Rare Diseases. R F has received research grants from Strongbridge and Recordati Rare Diseases and honoraria for talks at symposia and for participating in advisory boards from HRA Pharma Rare Diseases, Corcept, Ipsen, Novartis and Recordati Rare Diseases. M A H and S I are employees of HRA Pharma Rare Diseases. R A F is a member of the editorial board of Endocrine Connections. He was not involved in the editorial or review process of this paper, on which he is listed as an authors.

Funding

This work did not receive any specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sector.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank all the patients involved who responded and the World Association for Pituitary Organisations (WAPO), Adrenal Net, China Hypercortisolism Patient Alliance, the Cushing’s Support & Research Foundation (CSRF) and the Pituitary Foundation for assisting with the distribution of the patient questionnaires. The authors would also like to gratefully acknowledge the contribution of the ApotheCom communications agency for helping to conduct this survey.

References

Persistent vs Recurrent Cushing’s Disease Diagnosed Four Weeks Postpartum

Abstract

Background. Cushing’s disease (CD) recurrence in pregnancy is thought to be associated with estradiol fluctuations during gestation. CD recurrence in the immediate postpartum period in a patient with a documented dormant disease during pregnancy has never been reported. Case Report. A 30-year-old woman with CD had improvement of her symptoms after transsphenoidal resection (TSA) of her pituitary lesion. She conceived unexpectedly 3 months postsurgery and had no symptoms or biochemical evidence of recurrence during pregnancy. After delivering a healthy boy, she developed CD 4 weeks postpartum and underwent a repeat TSA. Despite repeat TSA, she continued to have elevated cortisol levels that were not well controlled with medical management. She eventually had a bilateral adrenalectomy. Discussion. CD recurrence may be higher in the peripartum period, but the link between pregnancy and CD recurrence and/or persistence is not well studied. Potential mechanisms of CD recurrence in the postpartum period are discussed below. Conclusion. We describe the first report of recurrent CD that was quiescent during pregnancy and diagnosed in the immediate postpartum period. Understanding the risk and mechanisms of CD recurrence in pregnancy allows us to counsel these otherwise healthy, reproductive-age women in the context of additional family planning.

1. Introduction

Despite a relatively high prevalence of Cushing’s syndrome (CS) in women of reproductive age, it is rare for pregnancy to occur in patients with active disease [1]. Hypercortisolism leads to infertility through impairment of the hypothalamic gonadal axis. Additionally, while Cushing’s disease (CD) is the leading etiology of CS in nonpregnant adults, it is less common in pregnancy, accounting for only 30–40% of the CS cases in pregnant women [2]. It has been suggested that in CD there is hypersecretion of both cortisol and androgens, impairing fertility to a greater extent, while in CS of an adrenal origin, hypersecretion is almost exclusively of cortisol with minimal androgen production [3]. Regardless of the cause, active CS in pregnancy is associated with a higher maternal and fetal morbidity, hence, prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential.

Pregnancy is considered a physiological state of hypercortisolism, and the peripartum period is a common time for women to develop CD [34]. A recent study reported that 27% of reproductive-age women with CD had onset associated with pregnancy [4]. The high rate of pregnancy-associated CD suggests that the stress of pregnancy and peripartum pituitary corticotroph hyperstimulation may promote or accelerate pituitary tumorigenesis [46]. During pregnancy, the circulating levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) in the plasma increase exponentially as a result of CRH production by the placenta, decidua, and fetal membranes rather than by the hypothalamus. Unbound circulating placental CRH stimulates pituitary ACTH secretion and causes maternal plasma ACTH levels to rise [4]. A review of the literature reveals many studies of CD onset during the peripartum period, but CD recurrence in the peripartum period has only been reported a handful of times [710]. Of these, most cases recurred during pregnancy. CD recurrence in the immediate postpartum period has only been reported once [7]. Below, we report for the first time a case of CD recurrence that occurred 4 weeks postpartum, with a documented dormant disease throughout pregnancy.

2. Case Presentation

A 30-year-old woman initially presented with prediabetes, weight gain, dorsal hump, abdominal striae, depression, lower extremity weakness, and oligomenorrhea with a recent miscarriage 10 months ago. Diagnostic tests were consistent with CD. Results included the following: three elevated midnight salivary cortisols: 0.33, 1.38, and 1.10 μg/dL (<0.010–0.090); 1 mg dexamethasone suppression test (DST) with cortisol 14 μg/dL (<1.8); elevated 24 hr urine cortisol (UFC) measuring 825 μg/24 hr (6–42); ACTH 35 pg/mL (7.2–63.3). MRI of the pituitary gland revealed a left 4 mm focal lesion (Figure 1(a)). After transsphenoidal resection (TSA), day 1, 2, and 3 morning cortisol values were 18, 5, and 2 μg/dL, respectively. Pathology did not show a definitive pituitary neoplasm. She was rapidly titrated off hydrocortisone (HC) by six weeks postresection. Her symptoms steadily improved, including improved energy levels, improved mood, and resolution of striae. She resumed normal menses and conceived unexpectedly around 3 months post-TSA. Hormonal evaluation completed a few weeks prior to her pregnancy indicated no recurrence: morning ACTH level, 27.8 pg/mL; UFC, 5 μg/24 hr; midnight salivary cortisol, 0.085 and 0.014 μg/dL. Her postop MRI at that time did not show a definitive adenoma (Figure 1(b)). During pregnancy, she had a normal oral glucose tolerance test at 20 weeks and no other sequela of CD. Every 8 weeks, she had 24-hour urine cortisol measurements. Of these, the highest was 93 μg/24 hr at 17 weeks and none were in the range of CD (Table 1). Towards the end of her 2nd trimester, she started to complain of severe fatigue. Given her low 24 hr urine cortisol level of 15 μg/24 hr at 36 weeks gestation, she was started on HC. She underwent a cesarean section at 40 weeks gestation for oligohydramnios and she subsequently delivered a healthy baby boy weighing 7.6 pounds with APGAR scores at 1 and 5 minutes being 9 and 9. HC was discontinued immediately after delivery. Around four weeks postpartum she developed symptoms suggestive for CD. Diagnostic tests showed an elevated midnight salivary cortisol of 0.206 and 0.723 μg/dL, and 24-hour urine cortisol of 400 μg/24 hr. MRI pituitary illustrated a 3 mm adenoma in the left posterior region of the gland, which was thought to represent a recurrent tumor (Figure 1(c)). A discrete lesion was found and resected during repeat TSA. Pathology confirmed corticotroph adenoma with MIB-1 < 3%. On postoperative days 1, 2, and 3, the cortisol levels were 26, 10, and 2.8 μg/dL, respectively. She was tapered off HC within one month. Her symptoms improved only slightly and she continued to report weight gain, muscle weakness, and fatigue. Three months after repeat TSA, biochemical data showed 1 out of 2 midnight salivary cortisols elevated at 0.124 μg/dL and elevated urine cortisol of 76 μg/24 hr. MRI pituitary demonstrated a 3 × 5 mm left enhancement, concerning for residual or enlarged persistent tumor. Subsequent lab work continued to show a biochemical excess of cortisol, and the patient was started on metyrapone but reported no significant improvement of her symptoms and only mild improvement of excess cortisol. After a multidisciplinary discussion, the patient made the decision to pursue bilateral adrenalectomy, as she refused further medical management and opted against radiation given the risk of hypogonadism.

(a)
(a)
(b)
(b)
(c)
(c)
(a)
(a)(b)
(b)(c)
(c)
Figure 1 
(a) Initial: MRI pituitary with and without contrast showing a coronal T1 postcontrast image immediately prior to our patient’s pituitary surgery. The red arrow points to a 3 × 3 × 5 mm hypoenhancing focus representing a pituitary microadenoma. (b) Postsurgical: MRI pituitary with and without contrast showing a coronal T1 postcontrast image obtained three months after transsphenoidal pituitary surgery. The red arrow shows that a hypoenhancing focus is no longer seen and has been resected. (c) Postpartum: MRI pituitary with and without contrast showing a coronal T1 postcontrast image obtained four weeks postpartum. The red arrow points to a 3 mm relatively hypoenhancing lesion representing a recurrent pituitary adenoma.
Table 1 
24-hour urine-free cortisol measurements collected approximately every 8 weeks throughout our patient’s pregnancy.

3. Discussion

The symptoms and signs of Cushing’s syndrome overlap with those seen in normal pregnancy, making diagnosis of Cushing’s disease during pregnancy challenging [1]. Potential mechanisms of gestational hypercortisolemia include increased systemic cortisol resistance during pregnancy, decreased sensitivity of plasma ACTH to negative feedback causing an altered pituitary ACTH setpoint, and noncircadian secretion of placental CRH during pregnancy causing stimulation of the maternal HPA axis [5]. Consequently, both urinary excretion of cortisol and late-night salivary cortisol undergo a gradual increase during normal pregnancy, beginning at the 11th week of gestation [2]. Cushing’s disease is suggested by 24-hour urinary-free cortisol levels greater than 3-fold of the upper limit of normal [2]. It has also been suggested that nocturnal salivary cortisol be used to diagnose Cushing’s disease by using the following specific trimester thresholds: first trimester, 0.25 μg/dL; second trimester, 0.26 μg/dL; third trimester 0.33, μg/dL [11]. By these criteria, our patient had no signs or biochemical evidence of CD during pregnancy but developed CD 4 weeks postpartum.

A recent study by Tang et al. proposed that there may be a higher risk of developing CD in the peripartum period, but did not test for CD during pregnancy, and therefore was not able to definitively say exactly when CD onset occurred in relation to pregnancy [4]. Previous literature suggests that there may be a higher risk of ACTH-secreting pituitary adenomas following pregnancy as there is a significant surge of ACTH and cortisol hormones at the time of labor. This increased stimulation of the pituitary corticotrophs in the immediate postpartum period may promote tumorigenesis [6]. It has also been suggested that the hormonal milieu during pregnancy may cause accelerated growth of otherwise dormant or small slow-growing pituitary corticotroph adenomas [45]. However, the underlying mechanisms of CD development in the postpartum period have yet to be clarified. We highlight the need for more research to investigate not only the development, but also the risk of CD recurrence in the postpartum period. Such research would be helpful for family planning.

4. Conclusion

Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation during pregnancy and the immediate postpartum period may result in higher rates of CD recurrence in the postpartum period, as seen in our patient. In general, more testing for CS in all reproductive-age females with symptoms suggesting CS, especially during and after childbirth, is necessary. Such testing can also help us determine when CD occurred in relation to pregnancy, so that we can further understand the link between pregnancy and CD occurrence, recurrence, and/or persistence. Learning about the potential mechanisms of CD development and recurrence in pregnancy will help us to counsel these reproductive-age women who desire pregnancy.

Abbreviations

CD: Cushing’s disease
TSA: Transsphenoidal resection
DST: Dexamethasone suppression test
ACTH: Adrenocorticotropic hormone
MRI: Magnetic-resonance imaging
HC: Hydrocortisone
CTH: Corticotroph-releasing hormone
HPA: Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal.

Data Availability

The data used to support the findings of this study are included within the article.

Additional Points

Note. Peripartum refers to the period immediately before, during, or after pregnancy and postpartum refers to any period after pregnancy up until 1 year postdelivery.

Disclosure

This case report is a follow up to an abstract that was presented in ENDO 2020 Abstracts. https://doi.org/10.1210/jendso/bvaa046.2128.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank Dr. Puneet Pawha for his help in reviewing MRI images and his suggestions.

References

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Copyright © 2022 Leena Shah et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

From https://www.hindawi.com/journals/crie/2022/9236711/

Pregnancy Doesn’t Boost Cushing Disease Recurrences

Researchers published the study covered in this summary on Research Square as a preprint that has not yet been peer reviewed.

Key Takeaways

  • Among women who underwent pituitary surgery to treat Cushing disease subsequent pregnancy had no apparent effect on Cushing disease recurrence, in a single-center review of 113 women treated over a 30-year period.

Why This Matters

  • No single factor predicts the recurrence of Cushing disease during long-term follow-up of patients who have undergone pituitary surgery.
  • This is the first study to assess the effect of pregnancy on Cushing disease recurrence in a group of reproductive-age women who initially showed post-surgical remission.

Study Design

  • Retrospective study of 355 patients with confirmed Cushing disease who were admitted to a single tertiary hospital in Brazil between 1990 and 2020. All patients had transsphenoidal surgery, with a minimum follow-up of 6 months and median follow-up of 83 months. Remission occurred in 246 of these patients.
  • The current analysis focused on 113 of the patients who achieved remission, were women, were 45 years old or younger at time of surgery (median 32 years old), and had information available on their obstetric history.
  • Ninety-one of these women (81%) did not become pregnant after their surgery, and 22 (19%) became pregnant after surgery.

Key Results

  • Among the 113 women in the main analysis 43 (38%) had a Cushing disease recurrence, a median of 48 months after their pituitary surgery.
  • Following surgery, 11 women in each of the two subgroups (recurrence, no recurrence) became pregnant.
  • Although the subgroup with recurrence had a higher incidence of pregnancy (11/43; 26%) compared with those with no recurrence (11/70; 16%) Kaplan-Meier analysis showed that survival free of Cushing disease recurrence was similar and not significantly different in the women with a postsurgical pregnancy and those who did not become pregnant (P=.531).
  • The review also showed that, of the women who became pregnant, several obstetrical measures were similar between patients who had a recurrence and those who remained in remission, including number of pregnancies per patient, maternal weight gain, type of delivery (normal or cesarean), delivery time (term or premature), neonatal weight, and neonatal size. The review also showed roughly similar rates of maternal and fetal complications in these two subgroups of women who became pregnant.

Limitations

  • The study was retrospective and included a relatively small number of patients.
  • The authors collected information on obstetric history for some patients by telephone or email contacts.

Disclosures

  • The study received no commercial funding.
  • None of the authors had disclosures.

This is a summary of a preprint research study ” Pregnancy After Pituitary Surgery Does Not Influence the Recurrence of Cushing s Disease,  written by researchers at the Sao Paulo (Brazil) University Faculty of Medicine on Research Square provided to you by Medscape. This study has not yet been peer reviewed. The full text of the study can be found on researchsquare.com.

Clinical Trial: Multicenter Study of Seliciclib (R-roscovitine) for Cushing Disease

Sponsor:
Information provided by (Responsible Party):
Shlomo Melmed, MD, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
Brief Summary:

This phase 2 multicenter, open-label clinical trial will evaluate safety and efficacy of 4 weeks of oral seliciclib in patients with newly diagnosed, persistent, or recurrent Cushing disease.

Funding Source – FDA Office of Orphan Products Development (OOPD)

Condition or disease  Intervention/treatment  Phase 
Cushing Disease Drug: Seliciclib Phase 2
Detailed Description:
This phase 2 multicenter, open-label clinical trial will evaluate safety and efficacy of two of three potential doses/schedules of oral seliciclib in patients with newly diagnosed, persistent, or recurrent Cushing disease. Up to 29 subjects will be treated with up to 800 mg/day oral seliciclib for 4 days each week for 4 weeks and enrolled in sequential cohorts based on efficacy outcomes. The study will also evaluate effects of seliciclib on quality of life and clinical signs and symptoms of Cushing disease.
Ages Eligible for Study: 18 Years and older   (Adult, Older Adult)
Sexes Eligible for Study: All
Accepts Healthy Volunteers: No
Criteria

Inclusion criteria:

  • Male and female patients at least 18 years old
  • Patients with confirmed pituitary origin of excess adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) production:
    • Persistent hypercortisolemia established by two consecutive 24 h UFC levels at least 1.5x the upper limit of normal
    • Normal or elevated ACTH levels
    • Pituitary macroadenoma (>1 cm) on MRI or inferior petrosal sinus sampling (IPSS) central to peripheral ACTH gradient >2 at baseline and >3 after corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) stimulation
    • Recurrent or persistent Cushing disease defined as pathologically confirmed resected pituitary ACTH-secreting tumor or IPSS central to peripheral ACTH gradient >2 at baseline and >3 after CRH stimulation, and 24 hour UFC above the upper limit of normal reference range beyond post-surgical week 6
    • Patients on medical treatment for Cushing disease. The following washout periods must be completed before screening assessments are performed:
      • Inhibitors of steroidogenesis (metyrapone, ketoconazole): 2 weeks
      • Somatostatin receptor ligand pasireotide: short-acting, 2 weeks; long-acting, 4 weeks
      • Progesterone receptor antagonist (mifepristone): 2 weeks
      • Dopamine agonists (cabergoline): 4 weeks
      • CYP3A4 strong inducers or inhibitors: varies between drugs; minimum 5-6 times the half-life of drug

Exclusion criteria:

  • Patients with compromised visual fields, and not stable for at least 6 months
  • Patients with abutment or compression of the optic chiasm on MRI and normal visual fields
  • Patients with Cushing’s syndrome due to non-pituitary ACTH secretion
  • Patients with hypercortisolism secondary to adrenal tumors or nodular (primary) bilateral adrenal hyperplasia
  • Patients who have a known inherited syndrome as the cause for hormone over secretion (i.e., Carney Complex, McCune-Albright syndrome, Multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) 1
  • Patients with a diagnosis of glucocorticoid-remedial aldosteronism (GRA)
  • Patients with cyclic Cushing’s syndrome defined by any measurement of UFC over the previous 1 months within normal range
  • Patients with pseudo-Cushing’s syndrome, i.e., non-autonomous hypercortisolism due to overactivation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in uncontrolled depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, morbid obesity, alcoholism, and uncontrolled diabetes mellitus
  • Patients who have undergone major surgery within 1 month prior to screening
  • Patients with serum K+< 3.5 while on replacement treatment
  • Diabetic patients whose blood glucose is poorly controlled as evidenced by HbA1C >8%
  • Patients who have clinically significant impairment in cardiovascular function or are at risk thereof, as evidenced by congestive heart failure (NYHA Class III or IV), unstable angina, sustained ventricular tachycardia, clinically significant bradycardia, high grade atrioventricular (AV) block, history of acute MI less than one year prior to study entry
  • Patients with liver disease or history of liver disease such as cirrhosis, chronic active hepatitis B and C, or chronic persistent hepatitis, or patients with alanine aminotransferase (ALT) or aspartate aminotransferase (AST) more than 1.5 x ULN, serum total bilirubin more than ULN, serum albumin less than 0.67 x lower limit of normal (LLN) at screening
  • Serum creatinine > 2 x ULN
  • Patients not biochemically euthyroid
  • Patients who have any current or prior medical condition that can interfere with the conduct of the study or the evaluation of its results, such as
    • History of immunocompromise, including a positive HIV test result (ELISA and Western blot). An HIV test will not be required, however, previous medical history will be reviewed
    • Presence of active or suspected acute or chronic uncontrolled infection
    • History of, or current alcohol misuse/abuse in the 12 month period prior to screening
  • Female patients who are pregnant or lactating, or are of childbearing potential and not practicing a medically acceptable method of birth control. If a woman is participating in the trial then one form of contraception is sufficient (pill or diaphragm) and the partner should use a condom. If oral contraception is used in addition to condoms, the patient must have been practicing this method for at least two months prior to screening and must agree to continue the oral contraceptive throughout the course of the study and for 3 months after the study has ended. Male patients who are sexually active are required to use condoms during the study and for three month afterwards as a precautionary measure (available data do not suggest any increased reproductive risk with the study drugs)
  • Patients who have participated in any clinical investigation with an investigational drug within 1 month prior to screening or patients who have previously been treated with seliciclib
  • Patients with any ongoing or likely to require additional concomitant medical treatment to seliciclib for the tumor
  • Patients with concomitant treatment of strong CYP3A4 inducers or inhibitors.
  • Patients who were receiving mitotane and/or long-acting somatostatin receptor ligands octreotide long-acting release (LAR) or lanreotide
  • Patients who have received pituitary irradiation within the last 5 years prior to the baseline visit
  • Patients who have been treated with radionuclide at any time prior to study entry
  • Patients with known hypersensitivity to seliciclib
  • Patients with a history of non-compliance to medical regimens or who are considered potentially unreliable or will be unable to complete the entire study
  • Patients with presence of Hepatitis B surface antigen (HbsAg)
  • Patients with presence of Hepatitis C antibody test (anti-HCV)

ACTH Levels After Surgery Help Predict Remission, Recurrence in Cushing’s

Levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) in circulation after pituitary surgery may help predict which Cushing’s disease patients will achieve early remission and which will eventually see the disease return, a study shows.

Also, the earlier that patients reached their lowest peak of ACTH levels, the better their long-term outcomes.

The study, “Prognostic usefulness of ACTH in the postoperative period of Cushing’s disease,” was published in the journal Endocrine Connections.

Removing the pituitary tumor through a minimally invasive surgery called transsphenoidal surgery is still the treatment of choice for Cushing’s disease patients. But not all patients enter remission, and even among those who do, a small proportion will experience disease recurrence.

While cortisol levels have been suggested as a main predictor of remission and recurrence, there is no consensus as to which cutoff point should be used after surgery, or the best time for measuring this hormone.

Because Cushing’s disease is caused by an ACTH-producing tumor in the pituitary gland, and ACTH has a short half-life (approximately 10 minutes), it is expected that ACTH levels drop markedly within a few hours after surgery.

Thus, a group of researchers in Spain aimed to determine whether blood levels of ACTH could be useful for predicting remission of Cushing’s disease both immediately after surgery (defined as less than 72 hours) and in the long term.

Researchers analyzed 65 patients with Cushing’s disease who had undergone transsphenoidal surgery (seven required a second intervention) between 2005 and 2016. Remission within three months was seen in 56 of 65 cases; late disease recurrence was seen in 18 of 58 cases.

Investigators measured the ACTH nadir concentration (defined as the lowest concentration) and the time taken to reach nadir levels after surgery, as well as the plasma ACTH concentration before hospital discharge.

While ACTH levels had no predictive value, the team found that people who went into remission had significantly lower ACTH nadir levels and ACTH levels at discharge. On the other hand, levels of ACHT nadir and at discharge were significantly higher for people who experienced a relapse, compared to those who remained in remission.

Using artificial intelligence algorithms, the researchers further found that ACTH nadir, ACTH at discharge, and cortisol nadir values were all of great relevance to predict remission within three months.

Analysis indicated that using a cutoff point of 3.3 pmol/L of ACTH after surgery and before discharge gave the best sensitivity and specificity for predicting a patient’s prognosis.

Researchers further found that the time patients took to reach their ACTH nadir, regardless of nadir levels, also influenced their outcomes. In fact, patients reaching this nadir in less than than 46 hours more likely achieved early remission.

And taking longer than 39 hours to reach the ACTH nadir was significantly more frequent in patients who experienced recurrence. This indicates that the time to ACTH nadir is an important measure for prognosis.

“In the immediate postoperative period of patients with [Cushing’s disease], the ACTH concentration is of prognostic utility in relation to late disease remission,” the researchers said.

Overall, “we propose an ACTH value <3.3 pmol/L as a good long-term prognostic marker in the postoperative period of CD. Reaching the ACTH nadir in less time is associated to a lesser recurrence rate,” the study concluded.

Patricia holds her Ph.D. in Cell Biology from University Nova de Lisboa, and has served as an author on several research projects and fellowships, as well as major grant applications for European Agencies. She also served as a PhD student research assistant in the Laboratory of Doctor David A. Fidock, Department of Microbiology & Immunology, Columbia University, New York.
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