There is mounting evidence that the serum concentration of TSH is an independent predictor for the diagnosis of thyroid malignancy in patients with nodular thyroid disease. Furthermore, preoperative serum TSH concentrations are higher in patients with more aggressive tumours, suggesting a potential role for TSH in the progression of differentiated thyroid cancer. Based on these observations, patients with higher serum TSH concentrations and borderline cytological results may require more aggressive investigation and treatment when compared with those with lower baseline TSH levels. The mechanisms underlying the finding of higher serum TSH in patients with thyroid cancer remain unexplained. In this issue of Endocrine-Related Cancer, Fiore et al. have analysed the relationship between serum TSH and diagnosis of papillary thyroid cancer in 10 178 patients with nodular thyroid disease who were investigated by fine-needle aspiration biopsy. They found significantly higher TSH concentrations in patients who were subsequently diagnosed with thyroid cancer compared with those with benign disease. In addition, they found that the development of autonomous thyroid function (TSH<0.4 μU/ml) was associated with a reduction in the risk of papillary thyroid carcinoma. In this commentary, the evidence regarding the association between serum TSH and thyroid cancer is discussed placing these new findings into context.
Hannah Nieto and Kristien Boelaert
Differentiated thyroid cancer is the most common endocrine malignancy and the incidence is increasing rapidly worldwide. Appropriate diagnosis and post-treatment monitoring of patients with thyroid tumours are critical. Fine needle aspiration cytology remains the gold standard for diagnosing thyroid cancer, and although there have been significant refinements to this technique, diagnostic surgery is often required for patients suspected to have malignancy. Serum thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is higher in patients with malignant thyroid nodules than in those with benign disease, and TSH is proportionally increased in more aggressive tumours. Importantly, we have shown that the pre-operative serum TSH concentration independently predicts the presence of malignancy in subjects presenting with thyroid nodules. Establishing the use of TSH measurements in algorithms identifying high-risk thyroid nodules in routine clinical practice represents an exciting, cost-efficient and non-invasive approach to optimise thyroid cancer diagnosis. Binding of TSH to receptors on thyrocytes stimulates a number of growth promoting pathways both in normal and malignant thyroid cells, and TSH suppression with high doses of levothyroxine is routinely used after thyroidectomy to prevent cancer recurrence, especially in high-risk tumours. This review examines the relationship between serum TSH and thyroid cancer and reflects on the clinical potential of TSH measurements in diagnosis and disease monitoring.