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Thomas G Papathomas, Lindsey Oudijk, Ellen C Zwarthoff, Edward Post, Floor A Duijkers, Max M van Noesel, Leo J Hofland, Patrick J Pollard, Eamonn R Maher, David F Restuccia, Richard A Feelders, Gaston J H Franssen, Henri J Timmers, Stefan Sleijfer, Wouter W de Herder, Ronald R de Krijger, Winand N M Dinjens, and Esther Korpershoek

Hotspot mutations in the promoter of the telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) gene have been recently reported in human cancers and proposed as a novel mechanism of telomerase activation. To explore TERT promoter mutations in tumors originating from the adrenal gland and extra-adrenal paraganglia, a set of 253 tumors (38 adrenocortical carcinomas (ACCs), 127 pheochromocytomas (PCCs), 18 extra-adrenal paragangliomas (ea PGLs), 37 head and neck PGLs (HN PGLs), and 33 peripheral neuroblastic tumors) was selected along with 16 human neuroblastoma (NBL) and two ACC cell lines to assess TERT promoter mutations by the Sanger sequencing method. All mutations detected were confirmed by a SNaPshot assay. Additionally, 36 gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) were added to explore an association between TERT promoter mutations and SDH deficiency. TERT promoter mutations were found in seven out of 289 tumors and in three out of 18 human cell lines; four C228T mutations in 38 ACCs (10.5%), two C228T mutations in 18 ea PGLs (11.1%), one C250T mutation in 36 GISTs (2.8%), and three C228T mutations in 16 human NBL cell lines (18.75%). No mutation was detected in PCCs, HN PGLs, neuroblastic tumors as well as ACC cell lines. TERT promoter mutations preferentially occurred in a SDH-deficient setting (P=0.01) being present in three out of 47 (6.4%) SDH-deficient tumors vs zero out of 171 (0%) SDH-intact tumors. We conclude that TERT promoter mutations occur in ACCs and ea PGLs. In addition, preliminary evidence indicates a potential association with the acquisition of TERT promoter mutations in SDH-deficient tumors.

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A Stigliano, L Cerquetti, M Borro, G Gentile, B Bucci, S Misiti, P Piergrossi, E Brunetti, M Simmaco, and V Toscano

Mitotane, 1,1-dichloro-2-(o-chlorophenyl)-2-(p-chloro-phenyl) ethane (o,p′-DDD), is a compound that represents the effective agent in the treatment of the adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC), able to block cortisol synthesis. In this type of cancer, the biological mechanism induced by this treatment remains still unknown. In this study, we have already shown a greater impairment in the first steps of the steroidogenesis and recognized a little effect on cell cycle. We also evaluated the variation of proteomic profile of the H295R ACC cell line, either in total cell extract or in mitochondria-enriched fraction after treatment with mitotane. In total cell extracts, triose phosphate isomerase, α-enolase, D-3-phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase, peroxiredoxin II and VI, heat shock protein 27, prohibitin, histidine triad nucleotide-binding protein, and profilin-1 showed a different expression. In the mitochondrial fraction, the following proteins appeared to be down regulated: aldolase A, peroxiredoxin I, heterogenous nuclear ribonucleoprotein A2/B1, tubulin-β isoform II, heat shock cognate 71 kDa protein, and nucleotide diphosphate kinase, whereas adrenodoxin reductase, cathepsin D, and heat shock 70 kDa protein 1A were positively up-regulated. This study represents the first proteomic study on the mitotane effects on ACC. It permits to identify some protein classes affected by the drug involved in energetic metabolism, stress response, cytoskeleton structure, and tumorigenesis.

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Peter M van Koetsveld, Giovanni Vitale, Richard A Feelders, Marlijn Waaijers, Diana M Sprij-Mooij, Ronald R de Krijger, Ernst-Jan M Speel, Johannes Hofland, Steven W J Lamberts, Wouter W de Herder, and Leo J Hofland

Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) is an aggressive tumor with very poor prognosis. Novel medical treatment opportunities are required. We investigated the effects of interferon-β (IFN-β), alone or in combination with mitotane, on cell growth and cortisol secretion in primary cultures of 13 human ACCs, three adrenal hyperplasias, three adrenal adenomas, and in two ACC cell lines. Moreover, the interrelationship between the effects of IGF2 and IFN-β was evaluated. Mitotane inhibited cell total DNA content/well (representing cell number) in 7/11 (IC50: 38±9.2 μM) and cortisol secretion in 5/5 ACC cultures (IC50: 4.5±0.1 μM). IFN-β reduced cell number in 10/11 (IC50: 83±18 IU/ml) and cortisol secretion in 5/5 ACC cultures (IC50: 7.3±1.5 IU/ml). The effect of IFN-β on cell number included the induction of apoptosis. IFN-β strongly inhibited mRNA expression of STAR, CYP11A1, CYP17A1, and CYP11B1. Mitotane and IFN-β induced an additive inhibitory effect on cell number and cortisol secretion. IGF2 (10 nM) inhibited apoptosis and increased cell number and cortisol secretion. These effects were counteracted by IFN-β treatment. Finally, IFN-β inhibited IGF2 secretion and mRNA expression. In conclusion, IFN-β is a potent inhibitor of ACC cell growth in human primary ACC cultures, partially mediated by an inhibition of the effects of IGF2, as well as its production. The increased sensitivity of ACC cells to mitotane induced by treatment with IFN-β may open the opportunity for combined treatment regimens with lower mitotane doses. The inhibition of the expression of steroidogenic enzymes by IFN-β is a novel mechanism that may explain its inhibitory effect on cortisol production.

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Meenu Jain, Lisa Zhang, Mei He, Ya-Qin Zhang, Min Shen, and Electron Kebebew

Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) is a rare but aggressive malignancy with no effective therapy for patients with unresectable disease. The aim of the current study was i) to evaluate TOP2A expression and function in human adrenocortical neoplasm and ACC cells and ii) to determine the anticancer activity of agents that target TOP2A. TOP2A mRNA and protein expression levels were evaluated in 112 adrenocortical tissue samples (21 normal adrenal cortex, 80 benign adrenocortical tumors, and 11 ACCs). In vitro siRNA knockdown of TOP2A in ACC cell lines (NCI-H295R and SW13) was used to determine its effect on cellular proliferation, cell cycle, anchorage-independent growth, and cellular invasion. We screened 14 TOP2A inhibitors for their anticancer activity in ACC cells. TOP2A mRNA and protein expression was significantly higher in ACC than in benign and normal adrenocortical tissue samples (P<0.05). Knockdown of TOP2A gene expression in ACC cell lines significantly decreased cell proliferation, anchorage-independent growth, and invasion (P<0.05). A screening assay in NCI-H295R cells showed that 11 of 14 TOP2A inhibitors had antiproliferative activity, 5 of the 14 TOP2A inhibitors had a higher antiproliferative activity than mitotane, and aclarubicin was the agent with the highest activity. Aclarubicin was validated to significantly decrease proliferation and tumor spheroid size in both NCI-H295R and SW13 ACC cell lines (P<0.05). Our results suggest that TOP2A is overexpressed in ACC, regulates cellular proliferation and invasion in ACC cells, and is an attractive target for ACC therapy. Of the TOP2A inhibitors screened, aclarubicin is a good candidate agent to test in future clinical trials for patients with locally advanced and metastatic ACC.

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Yunhui Cheng, Raili Emilia Kerppola, and Tom Klaus Kerppola

Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) generally has poor prognosis. Existing treatments provide limited benefit for most patients with locally advanced or metastatic tumors. We investigated the mechanisms for the cytotoxicity, xenograft suppression, and adrenalytic activity of ATR-101 (PD132301-02), a prospective agent for ACC treatment. Oral administration of ATR-101 inhibited the establishment and impeded the growth of ACC-derived H295R cell xenografts in mice. ATR-101 induced H295R cell apoptosis in culture and in xenografts. ATR-101 caused mitochondrial hyperpolarization, reactive oxygen release, and ATP depletion within hours after exposure, followed by cytochrome c release, caspase-3/7 activation, and membrane permeabilization. The increase in mitochondrial membrane potential occurred concurrently with the decrease in cellular ATP levels. When combined with ATR-101, lipophilic free radical scavengers suppressed the reactive oxygen release, and glycolytic precursors prevented the ATP depletion, abrogating ATR-101 cytotoxicity. ATR-101 directly inhibited F1F0-ATPase activity and suppressed ATP synthesis in mitochondrial fractions. ATR-101 administration to guinea pigs caused oxidized lipofuscin accumulation in the zona fasciculata layer of the adrenal cortex, implicating reactive oxygen release in the adrenalytic effect of ATR-101. These results support the development of ATR-101 and other adrenalytic compounds for the treatment of ACC.

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Vassiliki Kotoula, Elias Sozopoulos, Helen Litsiou, Galinos Fanourakis, Triantafyllia Koletsa, Gerassimos Voutsinas, Sophia Tseleni-Balafouta, Constantine S Mitsiades, Axel Wellmann, and Nicholas Mitsiades

The serine/threonine kinase B-Raf plays a key role in the Ras/Raf/MEK/ERK pathway that relays extracellular signals for cell proliferation and survival. Several types of human malignancies harbor activating BRAF mutations, most frequently a V600E substitution. The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a transmembrane tyrosine kinase (TK) receptor that mediates proliferation and survival signaling, is expressed in a wide variety of normal and neoplastic tissues. EGFR inhibitors have produced objective responses in patients with non-small cell lung carcinomas harboring activating EGFR TK domain somatic mutations. We evaluated the presence of mutations in BRAF (exons 11 and 15), KRAS (exons 1 and 2), NRAS (exons 1 and 2), and EGFR (exons 18–21) in adrenal carcinomas (35 tumor specimens and two cell lines) by DNA sequencing. BRAF mutations were found in two carcinomas (5.7%). Four carcinomas (11.4%) carried EGFR TK domain mutations. One specimen carried a KRAS mutation, and another carried two NRAS mutations. No mutations were found in the two adrenocortical cell lines. BRAF- and EGFR-mutant tumor specimens exhibited stronger immunostaining for the phosphorylated forms of the MEK and ERK kinases than their wild-type counterparts. EGFR-mutant carcinomas exhibited increased phosphorylation of EGFR (Tyr 992) compared with wild-type carcinomas. We conclude that BRAF, RAS, and EGFR mutations occur in a subset of human adrenocortical carcinomas. Inhibitors of the Ras/Raf/MEK/ERK and EGFR pathways represent candidate targeted therapies for future clinical trials in carefully selected patients with adrenocortical carcinomas harboring respective activating mutations.

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Giada Poli, Daniele Guasti, Elena Rapizzi, Rossella Fucci, Letizia Canu, Alessandra Bandinelli, Nicoletta Cini, Daniele Bani, Massimo Mannelli, and Michaela Luconi

At present, mitotane (MTT) represents the first-line pharmacological approach for the treatment of advanced adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC). Despite clear evidence that the drug can reduce the clinical signs of steroid excess in secreting ACC, the mechanism mediating the possible toxic effect of MTT on tumor cells still remains obscure. This study investigated the intracellular events underlying the toxic effect of MTT by studying qualitative and quantitative alterations in mitochondrial morphology and functions in human adrenocortical cancer cell lines, H295R and SW13. Increasing concentrations of MTT resulted in rapid intracellular accumulation and conversion of the drug. Cytostatic and cytotoxic effects were evident at doses corresponding to the therapeutic window (30–50 μM) through an apoptotic mechanism involving caspase 3/7. Electron microscopic analysis of cell mitochondria displayed MTT-induced dose- and time-dependent alterations in the morphology of the organelle. These alterations were characterized by a marked swelling and a decrease in the number of respiratory cristae, accompanied by a significant depolarization of the mitochondrial membrane potential, finally leading to the disruption of the organelle. A drastic reduction of oxygen consumption was observed due to mitochondrial membrane damage, which was accompanied by a decrease in the levels of VDAC1 integral membrane channel. These findings contribute to better understand the intracellular mechanism of action of MTT in ACC cells, showing that its cytotoxic effect seems to be mainly mediated by an apoptotic process activated by the disruption of mitochondria.

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A Karpathakis, H Dibra, and C Thirlwell

The field of epigenetics has evolved rapidly over recent years providing insight into the tumorigenesis of many solid and haematological malignancies. Determination of epigenetic modifications in neuroendocrine tumour (NET) development is imperative if we are to improve our understanding of the biology of this heterogenous group of tumours. Epigenetic marks such as DNA methylation at RASSF1A are frequent findings in NETs of all origins and may be associated with worse prognosis. MicroRNA signatures and histone modifications have been identified which can differentiate subtypes of NET and distinguish NET from adenocarcinoma in cases of diagnostic uncertainty. Historically, candidate gene-driven approaches have yielded limited insight into the epigenetics of NET. Recent progress has been facilitated by development of high-throughput tools including second-generation sequencing and arrays for analysis of the ‘epigenome’ of tumour and normal tissue, permitting unbiased approaches such as exome sequencing that identified mutations of chromatin-remodelling genes ATRX/DAXX in 44% of pancreatic NETs. Epigenetic changes are reversible and therefore represent an attractive therapeutic target; to date, clinical outcomes of epigenetic therapies in solid tumours have been disappointing; however, in vitro studies on NETs are promising and further clinical trials are required to determine utility of this class of novel agents. In this review, we perform a comprehensive evaluation of epigenetic changes found in NETs to date, including rare NETs such as phaeochromocytoma and adrenocortical tumours. We suggest priorities for future research and discuss potential clinical applications and novel therapies.

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D E Schteingart, G M Doherty, P G Gauger, T J Giordano, G D Hammer, M Korobkin, and F P Worden

Adrenocortical carcinomas are rare, highly malignant tumors that account for only 0.2% of deaths due to cancer. Given the limited number of patients seen in most medical centers with this diagnosis, series usually reported are small and clinical trials not randomized or blinded. In an attempt to answer important questions concerning the management of patients with adrenal cancer, a consensus conference was organized and held at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI, 11–13 September 2003, with the participation of an international group of physicians who had reported on the largest series of patients with this disease and who had recognized basic and clinical research expertise in adrenal cortical cancer. Totally 43 questions were addressed by the presenters and recommendations discussed in plenary and breakout sessions. Evidence for the recommendations of this conference was at the 2–4+ level and based on available literature and participants’ experience.

In addition to setting up guidelines in specific areas of the diagnosis and treatment of adrenal cancer, the conference recommended and initiated the planning of an international prospective trial for treatment of patients with adrenal cancer in stages III and IV. In terms of new therapies, first trials of dendritic cell therapy in human subjects with adrenal cancer have been started, but it is too early to comment on efficacy. Different strategies of immunotherapy, including DNA vaccination are currently being tried in animal models. There are no clinical gene therapy trials for human adrenal cortical cancer. The adrenals are a preferred target for adenovirus and the results of gene therapy in preclinical studies are promising. In addition, there is evidence that histone deacetylase inhibitors can further enhance the rate of adenoviral infectivity in human adrenal cancer cells. Testing of retroviral vectors, non-viral vectors, small interfering RNA technology, and combined approaches could be performed in various laboratories. Anti-angiogenic substances have only been applied in preclinical studies. The use of these and other agents in the treatment of adrenal cancer should be hypothesis-driven and based on a thorough analysis of tumor biology.

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Sandra Rodríguez-Rodero, Elías Delgado-Álvarez, Agustín F Fernández, Juan L Fernández-Morera, Edelmiro Menéndez-Torre, and Mario F Fraga

Aberrant epigenetics is a hallmark of cancer, and endocrine-related tumors are no exception. Recent research has been identifying an ever-growing number of epigenetic alterations in both genomic DNA methylation and histone post-translational modification in tumors of the endocrine system. Novel microarray and ultra-deep sequencing technologies have allowed the identification of genome-wide epigenetic patterns in some tumor types such as adrenocortical, parathyroid, and breast carcinomas. However, in other cancer types, such as the multiple endocrine neoplasia syndromes and thyroid cancer, tumor information is limited to candidate genes alone. Future research should fill this gap and deepen our understanding of the functional role of these alterations in cancer, as well as defining their possible clinical uses.