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Andreas Machens and Henning Dralle

Genetic association studies hinge on definite clinical case definitions of the disease of interest. This is why more penetrant mutations were overrepresented in early multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2) studies, whereas less penetrant mutations went underrepresented. Enrichment of genetic association studies with advanced disease may produce a flawed understanding of disease evolution, precipitating far-reaching surgical strategies like bilateral total adrenalectomy and 4-gland parathyroidectomy in MEN2. The insight into the natural course of the disease gleaned over the past 25 years caused a paradigm shift in MEN2: from the removal of target organs at the expense of greater operative morbidity to close biochemical surveillance and targeted resection of adrenal tumors and hyperplastic parathyroid glands. The lead time provided by early identification of asymptomatic MEN2 carriers under biochemical surveillance delimits a ‘window of opportunity’, within which (i) pre-emptive total thyroidectomy alone is adequate, circumventing morbidity attendant to central node dissection; (ii) subtotal ‘tissue-sparing’ adrenalectomy is sufficient, trading the risk of steroid dependency for the risk of a second pheochromocytoma in the adrenal remnant and (iii) parathyroidectomy is limited to enlarged glands, trading the risk of postoperative hypoparathyroidism for the risk of leaving behind hyperactive parathyroid glands. Future research should delineate further the mutation-specific, age-dependent penetrance of pheochromocytoma and primary hyperparathyroidism to refine the risk-oriented approach to MEN2. The sweeping changes in the management of MEN2 since the new millenium hold the hope that death and major morbidity from this uncommon disease can be eliminated in our lifetime.

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Andreas Machens, Steffen Hauptmann and Henning Dralle

Rearranged during transfection (RET) germ-line mutations in exon 10 are peculiar because they produce both gain-of-function multiple endocrine neoplasia 2A and loss-of-function Hirschsprung's disease phenotypes. Drawing on 38 medullary thyroid cancer patients harboring germ-line mutations in codon 620 (n=8), 618 (n=19), 611 (n=10), and 609 (n=1), this study aimed to test the hypothesis that closer proximity of RET germ-line mutations in exon 10 to the cell membrane may translate into earlier or more advanced disease. The closer mutations in codon 620, 618, and 611 were located to the transmembrane domain (codons 657–636) of the RET receptor, the greater were mean primary tumor diameters (23.5, 18.7, and 7.5 mm, P=0.020), the frequency of lymph node metastasis (75, 68, and 30%, P=0.11) and pheochromocytoma (38, 16, and 0%, P=0.11). Periods of observation were broadly comparable for these groups (mean age 33.4–39.3 years; P=0.71). When mutations in adjoining codons were collapsed (codons 620/618 vs 611/609), the differences in mean primary tumor diameter (20.1 vs 7.4 mm, P=0.005) and lymph node metastasis (70 vs 36%; P=0.07) were accentuated. Compared with 80 carriers of exon 11 mutations (codon 634, n=78; codon 630, n=2), the 38 carriers of exon 10 mutations, which are rarer and confer a weaker transforming activity in vitro than exon 11 mutations, required significantly more time to develop fewer tumors. Although limited in numbers, these data suggested that membrane proximity is an important determinant of tumor development in carriers of RET mutations in exon 10.

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Andreas Machens, Florian Hoffmann, Carsten Sekulla and Henning Dralle

Men and women differ in thyroidal C-cell mass and calcitonin secretion. This difference may have implications for the definition of calcitonin thresholds to distinguish sporadic C-cell hyperplasia from occult medullary thyroid cancer. This retrospective study examined the hypothesis that gender-specific calcitonin thresholds predict occult medullary thyroid cancer more accurately among patients with increased basal calcitonin levels than unisex thresholds. A total of 100 consecutive patients were evaluated with occult sporadic C-cell disease no larger than 10 mm who were referred for increased basal calcitonin levels and underwent pentagastrin stimulation preoperatively at this institution. Altogether, gender-specific calcitonin thresholds predicted medullary thyroid cancer better than unisex thresholds. At lower (≤50 pg/ml basally; ≤500 pg/ml after stimulation), but not higher, calcitonin serum levels, women revealed medullary thyroid cancer four to eight times more often than men. Most discriminatory between C-cell hyperplasia and medullary thyroid cancer was a basal calcitonin threshold of 15 pg/ml (corrected 20 pg/ml) for women and 80 pg/ml (corrected 100 pg/ml) for men, based on the greatest accuracy at the lowest possible calcitonin level. The respective gender-specific stimulated peak calcitonin thresholds were 80 pg/ml (corrected 100 pg/ml) and 500 pg/ml. Corresponding positive predictive values for medullary thyroid cancer at these calcitonin thresholds were 89 and 90% for women, as opposed to 100% for men. To increase the positive predictive value for women to 100%, the respective calcitonin thresholds would have to be raised to 40 pg/ml (corrected 50 pg/ml) and 250 pg/ml. These findings indicate that gender-specific calcitonin thresholds predict sporadic occult medullary thyroid cancer better than unisex thresholds.

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Andreas Machens, Kerstin Lorenz, Frank Weber and Henning Dralle