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Andrea Gutierrez Maria, Christina Tatsi, Annabel Berthon, Ludivine Drougat, Nikolaos Settas, Fady Hannah-Shmouni, Jerome Bertherat, Fabio R Faucz, and Constantine A Stratakis

Mutations in the protein kinase A (PKA) regulatory subunit type 1A (PRKAR1A) and armadillo repeat-containing 5 (ARMC5) genes cause Cushing‘s syndrome (CS) due to primary pigmented nodular adrenocortical disease (PPNAD) and primary bilateral macronodular adrenocortical hyperplasia (PBMAH), respectively. Between the two genes, ARMC5 is highly polymorphic with several variants in the population, whereas PRKAR1A has very little, if any, non-pathogenic variation in its coding sequence. We tested the hypothesis that ARMC5 variants may affect the clinical presentation of PPNAD and CS among patients with PRKAR1A mutations. In this study, 91 patients with PPNAD due to PRKAR1A mutations were tested for abnormal cortisol secretion or CS and for ARMC5 sequence variants. Abnormal cortisol secretion was present in 71 of 74 patients with ARMC5 variants, whereas 11 of 17 patients negative for ARMC5 variants did not have hypercortisolemia. The presence of ARMC5 variants was a statistically strong predictor of CS among patients with PRKAR1A mutations (P < 0.001). Among patients with CS due to PPNAD, ARMC5 variants were associated with lower cortisol levels at baseline (P = 0.04) and after high dose dexamethasone administration (P = 0.02). The ARMC5 p.I170V variant increased ARMC5 protein accumulation in vitro and decreased viability of NCI-H295 cells (but not HEK 293T cells). PPNAD tissues with ARMC5 variants showed stronger ARMC5 protein expression than those that carried a normal ARMC5 sequence. Taken together, our results suggest that ARMC5 variants among patients with PPNAD due to PRKAR1A defects may play the role of a genetic modifier for the presence and severity of hypercortisolemia.

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Simon Faillot, Thomas Foulonneau, Mario Néou, Stéphanie Espiard, Simon Garinet, Anna Vaczlavik, Anne Jouinot, Windy Rondof, Amandine Septier, Ludivine Drougat, Karine Hécale-Perlemoine, Bruno Ragazzon, Marthe Rizk-Rabin, Mathilde Sibony, Fidéline Bonnet-Serrano, Jean Guibourdenche, Rosella Libé, Lionel Groussin, Bertrand Dousset, Aurélien de Reyniès, Jérôme Bertherat, and Guillaume Assié

Benign adrenal tumors cover a spectrum of lesions with distinct morphology and steroid secretion. Current classification is empirical. Beyond a few driver mutations, pathophysiology is not well understood. Here, a pangenomic characterization of benign adrenocortical tumors is proposed, aiming at unbiased classification and new pathophysiological insights. Benign adrenocortical tumors (n = 146) were analyzed by transcriptome, methylome, miRNome, chromosomal alterations and mutational status, using expression arrays, methylation arrays, miRNA sequencing, SNP arrays, and exome or targeted next-generation sequencing respectively. Pathological and hormonal data were collected for all tumors. Pangenomic analysis identifies four distinct molecular categories: (1) tumors responsible for overt Cushing, gathering distinct tumor types, sharing a common cAMP/PKA pathway activation by distinct mechanisms; (2) adenomas with mild autonomous cortisol excess and non-functioning adenomas, associated with beta-catenin mutations; (3) primary macronodular hyperplasia with ARMC5 mutations, showing an ovarian expression signature; (4) aldosterone-producing adrenocortical adenomas, apart from other benign tumors. Epigenetic alterations and steroidogenesis seem associated, including CpG island hypomethylation in tumors with no or mild cortisol secretion, miRNA patterns defining specific molecular groups, and direct regulation of steroidogenic enzyme expression by methylation. Chromosomal alterations and somatic mutations are subclonal, found in less than 2/3 of cells. New pathophysiological insights, including distinct molecular signatures supporting the difference between mild autonomous cortisol excess and overt Cushing, ARMC5 implication into the adreno-gonadal differentiation faith, and the subclonal nature of driver alterations in benign tumors, will orient future research. This first genomic classification provides a large amount of data as a starting point.

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Christina Wei and Elizabeth C Crowne

Endocrine abnormalities are common among childhood cancer survivors. Abnormalities of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPAA) are relatively less common, but the consequences are severe if missed. Patients with tumours located and/or had surgery performed near the hypothalamic–pituitary region and those treated with an accumulative cranial radiotherapy dose of over 30 Gy are most at risk of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) deficiency. Primary adrenal insufficiency may occur in patients with tumours located in or involving one or both adrenals. The effects of adjunct therapies also need to be considered, particularly, new immunotherapies. High-dose and/or prolonged courses of glucocorticoid treatment can result in secondary adrenal insufficiency, which may take months to resolve and hence reassessment is important to ensure patients are not left on long-term replacement steroids inappropriately. The prevalence and cumulative incidences of HPAA dysfunction are difficult to quantify because of its non-specific presentation and lack of consensus regarding its investigations. The insulin tolerance test remains the gold standard for the diagnosis of central cortisol deficiency, but due to its risks, alternative methods with reduced diagnostic sensitivities are often used and must be interpreted with caution. ACTH deficiency may develop many years after the completion of oncological treatment alongside other pituitary hormone deficiencies. It is essential that health professionals involved in the long-term follow-up of childhood cancer survivors are aware of individuals at risk of developing HPAA dysfunction and implement appropriate monitoring and treatment.

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Fady Hannah-Shmouni, Annabel Berthon, Fabio R Faucz, Juan Medina Briceno, Andrea Gutierrez Maria, Andrew Demidowich, Mirko Peitzsch, Jimmy Masjkur, Fidéline Bonnet-Serrano, Anna Vaczlavik, Jérôme Bertherat, Martin Reincke, Graeme Eisenhofer, and Constantine A Stratakis

Biochemical characterization of primary bilateral macronodular adrenocortical hyperplasia (PBMAH) by distinct plasma steroid profiles and its putative correlation to disease has not been previously studied. LC-MS/MS–based steroid profiling of 16 plasma steroids was applied to 36 subjects (22 females, 14 males) with PBMAH, 19 subjects (16 females, 3 males) with other forms of adrenal Cushing's syndrome (ACS), and an age and sex-matched control group. Germline ARMC5 sequencing was performed in all PBMAH cases. Compared to controls, PBMAH showed increased plasma 11-deoxycortisol, corticosterone, 11-deoxycorticosterone, 18-hydroxycortisol, and aldosterone, but lower progesterone, DHEA, and DHEA-S with distinct differences in subjects with and without pathogenic variants in ARMC5. Steroids that showed isolated differences included cortisol and 18-oxocortisol with higher (P < 0.05) concentrations in ACS than in controls and aldosterone with higher concentrations in PBMAH when compared to controls. Larger differences in PBMAH than with ACS were most clear for corticosterone, but there were also trends in this direction for 18-hydroxycortisol and aldosterone. Logistic regression analysis indicated four steroids – DHEA, 11-deoxycortisol, 18-oxocortisol, and corticosterone – with the most power for distinguishing the groups. Discriminant analyses with step-wise variable selection indicated correct classification of 95.2% of all subjects of the four groups using a panel of nine steroids; correct classification of subjects with and without germline variants in ARMC5 was achieved in 91.7% of subjects with PBMAH. Subjects with PBMAH show distinctive plasma steroid profiles that may offer a supplementary single-test alternative for screening purposes.

Free access

I Bossis, A Voutetakis, T Bei, F Sandrini, K J Griffin, and C A Stratakis

The type 1 alpha regulatory subunit (R1alpha) of cAMP-dependent protein kinase A (PKA) (PRKAR1A) is an important regulator of the serine-threonine kinase activity catalyzed by the PKA holoenzyme. Carney complex (CNC) describes the association 'of spotty skin pigmentation, myxomas, and endocrine overactivity'; CNC is in essence the latest form of multiple endocrine neoplasia to be described and affects the pituitary, thyroid, adrenal and gonadal glands. Primary pigmented nodular adrenocortical disease (PPNAD), a micronodular form of bilateral adrenal hyperplasia that causes a unique, inherited form of Cushing syndrome, is also the most common endocrine manifestation of CNC. CNC and PPNAD are genetically heterogeneous but one of the responsible genes is PRKAR1A, at least for those families that map to 17q22-24 (the chromosomal region that harbors PRKAR1A). CNC and/or PPNAD are the first human diseases to be caused by mutations in one of the subunits of the PKA holoenzyme. Despite the extensive literature on R1alpha and PKA, little is known about their potential involvement in cell cycle regulation, growth and/or proliferation. The presence of inactivating germline mutations and the loss of its wild-type allele in CNC lesions indicated that PRKAR1A could function as a tumor-suppressor gene in these tissues. However, there are conflicting data in the literature about PRKAR1A's role in human neoplasms, cancer cell lines and animal models. In this report, we review briefly the genetics of CNC and focus on the involvement of PRKAR1A in human tumorigenesis in an effort to reconcile the often diametrically opposite reports on R1alpha.

Free access

Patricia de Cremoux, Dan Rosenberg, Jacques Goussard, Catherine Brémont-Weil, Frédérique Tissier, Carine Tran-Perennou, Lionnel Groussin, Xavier Bertagna, Jérôme Bertherat, and Marie-Laure Raffin-Sanson

Adrenal tumors occur more frequently in women and are the leading cause of Cushing's syndrome during pregnancy. We aimed to evaluate the potential role of sex steroids in the susceptibility of women to adrenocortical tumors. We evaluated the presence of the progesterone receptor (PR), estradiol receptors (ERs), and aromatase in 5 patients with primary pigmented nodular adrenal disease (PPNAD), 15 adrenocortical adenomas (ACAs) and adjacent normal tissues, 12 adrenocortical carcinomas (ACCs), and 3 normal adrenal glands (NA). The expression of PR and ERα was evaluated by enzyme immunoassays, real-time RT-PCR, immunohistochemistry, and cytosol-based ligand-binding assays. ERβ and aromatase levels were evaluated by real-time RT-PCR. ERα concentrations were low in NA, in adrenal tissues adjacent to ACA (51±33), in ACC (53±78), and lower in ACA (11±11 fmol/mg DNA). Conversely, PR concentrations were high in NA and adrenal tissues adjacent to ACA, at 307±216 fmol/mg DNA, and were even higher in tumors – 726±706 fmol/mg DNA in ACA and 1154±1586 fmol/mg DNA in ACC – and in isolated PPNAD nodules. Binding study results in four tumors were compatible with binding to a steroid receptor. In patients with PPNAD, a strong positive immunohistochemical signal was associated with the sole isolated nodular regions. ERβ transcript levels were very high in all samples except those for two ACCs, whereas aromatase levels were low. PR and ERβ are clearly present in normal adrenal glands and adrenal tumors. Further studies may shed light on the possible pathogenic role of these receptors in adrenal proliferation.

Free access

Rossella Libè, Amato Fratticci, and Jérôme Bertherat

Adrenocortical cancer (ACC) is a rare tumor with a poor prognosis. By contrast, benign adrenocortical tumors are frequent, underlying the importance of a correct diagnosis of malignancy of such tumors. ACC can be diagnosed by the investigation of endocrine signs of steroid excess, symptoms due to tumor growth or an adrenal incidentaloma. Hormonal investigations demonstrate in most ACC steroid oversecretion, the dominant characteristics being a co-secretion of cortisol and androgens. Imaging by CT-scan or MRI shows a large heterogeneous tumor with a low fat content. Careful pathological investigation with the assessment of the Weiss score is important for the diagnosis of malignancy. Molecular markers can also be helpful and in the future might be important for prognosis. Tumors localized to the adrenal gland (McFarlane stages 1 and 2) have a better outcome than invasive and metastatic tumors (stages 3 and 4). Tumor removal by a specialized team is crucial for treatment and should always aim at complete removal. In patients with metastatic or progressive disease, medical treatment is started with mitotane that requires a close monitoring of its blood level. Surgery is indicated when possible for local recurrence but also in some cases of metastasis. Local treatment (radiofrequency, chemoembolization, and radiation therapy) can have some indications for metastatic disease. In patients with disease progression cytotoxic chemotherapy can be used. Despite the best care, the overall prognosis of ACC is poor with a 5-year survival rate below 30% in most series. Therefore, progress in the understanding of the pathophysiology of ACC is important. Despite the rarity of ACC, significant advances have been made in the understanding of its pathogenesis the last decade. These progresses came mainly from the study of the genetics of ACC, both at the germline level in rare familial diseases, and at the somatic level by the study of molecular alterations in sporadic tumors. These advances underline the importance of genetic alterations in ACC development and point-out to various chromosomal regions (2, 11p15, 11q, 17p13) and genes (IGF-II, p53, β-catenin, ACTH receptor). This review will summarize these advances as well as the current clinical management of ACC.

Free access

Yu-fang Bi, Rui-xin Liu, Lei Ye, Hai Fang, Xiao-ying Li, Wei-qing Wang, Ji Zhang, Kan-Kan Wang, Lei Jiang, Ting-wei Su, Zhong-yuan Chen, and Guang Ning

Although there has been increased knowledge about the molecular biology of neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), little is known about thymic carcinoids and even less about those with excessive hormone disorders, such as ectopic ACTH syndrome. This study was designed to gain insights into the molecular networks underlying the tumorigenesis of thymic carcinoids with ACTH secretion. By an approach integrating cDNA microarray and methods of computational biology, we compare gene expression profile between ACTH-producing thymic carcinoids and the normal thymus. In total, there are 63 biological categories increased and 108 decreased in thymic carcinoids. Cell proliferation was stimulated, which may explain the relatively uncontrolled cell growth of the tumor. Dysregulation of the Notch-signaling pathway was likely to be underlying the neuroendocrine features of this type of tumors. Moreover, inhibition of immunity and increased neuropeptide signaling molecules (POMC and its sorting molecule CPE) made the clinical manifestation reasonable and thus validated the array data. In conclusion, thymic carcinoids have a distinct gene expression pattern from the normal thymus, and they are characterized by deregulations of a series of biofunctions, which may be involved in the development of NETs. Hence, this study has provided not only a detailed comprehension of the molecular pathogenesis of thymic carcinoids with ectopic ACTH syndrome, but also a road map to approach thymic NETs at the system level.

Open access

Paula Sommer, Rachel L Cowen, Andrew Berry, Ann Cookson, Brian A Telfer, Kaye J Williams, Ian J Stratford, Paul Kay, Anne White, and David W Ray

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is an aggressive tumor, associated with ectopic ACTH syndrome. We have shown that SCLC cells are glucocorticoid receptor (GR) deficient, and that restoration of GR expression confers glucocorticoid sensitivity and induces apoptosis in vitro. To determine the effects of GR expression in vivo, we characterized a mouse SCLC xenograft model that secretes ACTH precursor peptides, and so drives high circulating corticosterone concentrations (analogous to the ectopic ACTH syndrome). Infection of SCLC xenografts with GR-expressing adenovirus significantly slowed tumor growth compared with control virus infection. Time to fourfold initial tumor volume increased from a median of 9 days to 16 days (P=0.05; n=7 per group). Post-mortem analysis of GR-expressing tumors revealed a threefold increase in apoptotic (TUNEL positive) cells (P<0.01). Infection with the GR-expressing adenovirus caused a significant reduction in Bcl-2 and Bcl-xL transcripts. Furthermore, in both the GR-expressing adenovirus-infected cells and tumors, a significant number of uninfected cells underwent apoptosis, supporting a bystander cell killing effect. Therefore, GR expression is pro-apoptotic for human SCLCs in vivo, as well as in vitro, suggesting that loss of GR confers a survival advantage to SCLCs.