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R van der Pas, W W de Herder, L J Hofland and R A Feelders

Cushing's syndrome (CS) is a severe endocrine disorder characterized by chronic cortisol excess due to an ACTH-secreting pituitary adenoma, ectopic ACTH production, or a cortisol-producing adrenal neoplasia. Regardless of the underlying cause, untreated CS is associated with considerable morbidity and mortality. Surgery is the primary therapy for all causes of CS, but surgical failure and ineligibility of the patient to undergo surgery necessitate alternative treatment modalities. The role of medical therapy in CS has been limited because of lack of efficacy or intolerability. In recent years, however, new targets for medical therapy have been identified, both at the level of the pituitary gland (e.g. somatostatin, dopamine, and epidermal growth factor receptors) and the adrenal gland (ectopically expressed receptors in ACTH-independent macronodular adrenal hyperplasia). In this review, results of preclinical and clinical studies with drugs that exert their action through these molecular targets, as well as already established medical treatment options, will be discussed.

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Aura D Herrera Martínez, Leo Hofland, María Ángeles Gálvez Moreno, Justo P Castaño, Wouter W de Herder and R A Feelders

Some biomarkers for functioning and non-functioning neuroendocrine neoplasms (NENs) are currently available. Despite their application in clinical practice, results should be interpreted cautiously. Considering the variable sensitivity and specificity of these parameters there is an unmet need for novel biomarkers to improve diagnosis and predict patient outcome. Nowadays, several new biomarkers are being evaluated and may become future tools for the management of NENs. These biomarkers include: (1) peptides and growth factors; (2) DNA and RNA markers based on genomics analysis, e.g the so-called NET test, which has been developed for analyzing gene transcripts in circulating blood; (3) circulating tumor/ endothelial/progenitor cells or cell free tumor DNA, which represent minimally invasive methods that would provide additional information for monitoring treatment response and (4) improved imaging techniques with novel radiolabeled somatostatin analogs or peptides. Below we summarize some future directions in the development of novel diagnostic and predictive/prognostic biomarkers in NENs. This review is focused on circulating and selected tissue markers.

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Tessa Brabander, Wouter A van der Zwan, Jaap J M Teunissen, Boen L R Kam, Wouter W de Herder, Richard A Feelders, Eric P Krenning and Dik J Kwekkeboom

Peptide receptor radionuclide therapy (PRRT) with [177Lu-DOTA0,Tyr3]octreotate (177Lu-DOTATATE) is a treatment with good results in patients with metastatic gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (GEPNETs). However, there are some pitfalls that should be taken into consideration when evaluating the treatment response after PRRT. 354 Dutch patients with GEPNETs who were treated with 177Lu-DOTATATE between March 2000 and December 2011 were retrospectively selected. Liver function parameters and chromogranin A were measured before each therapy and in follow-up. Anatomical imaging was performed before therapy and in follow-up. An increase in aminotransferases by ≥20% compared to baseline was observed in 83 of 351 patients (24%). In patients with an objective response (OR) and stable disease (SD) this increase was observed in 71/297 (24%) and in patients with progressive disease (PD) it was observed in 12/54 patients (22%). An increase in chromogranin A by ≥20% compared to baseline was observed in 76 patients (29%). This was present in 34% of patients who eventually had PD and 27% of patients who had OR/SD. In 70% of patients this tumour marker returned to baseline levels after therapy. An increase in liver enzymes and chromogranin A is not uncommon after PRRT. In the vast majority of patients this will resolve in follow-up. Clinicians should be aware that these changes may occur due to radiation-induced inflammation or disease progression and that repeated measurements over time are necessary to differentiate between the two.

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S G Creemers, L J Hofland, E Korpershoek, G J H Franssen, F J van Kemenade, W W de Herder and R A Feelders

Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) is a rare disease with a poor prognosis. Discrimination between ACCs and adrenocortical adenomas (ACAs) remains challenging, with the current gold standard being the Weiss score, consisting of several histopathological characteristics. However, new markers like Ki67, a marker for proliferation, and the staining of reticulins are promising not only as it comes to identifying malignancy but also as prognostic markers in patients with ACC. Currently, surgery is still the only curative treatment for ACC. Mitotane, an adrenolytic drug, is used in the adjuvant setting and in case of metastatic or advanced disease. Patients with progressive disease are frequently treated with mitotane, alone or in combination with etoposide, doxorubicine and cisplatin. Radiotherapy is indicated in selected cases. The low response rates and high toxicity of the systemic therapies emphasize the need for markers that enable the identification of responders and non-responders. Consequently, research is focusing on predictive factors varying from the expression of DNA repair genes to clinical patient characteristics. Subgroups of ACC with different prognosis have been identified based on transcriptome characteristics. As a conclusion from large molecular studies, ACCs appear to harbor many abnormalities compared to ACAs. Altered pathways driving ACC pathogenesis include the IGF, TP53 and the Wnt signaling pathway, allowing these as new potential targets for medical therapy. However, despite efforts in preclinical and clinical studies investigating efficacy of targeting these pathways, most novel therapies appear to be effective in only a subset of patients with ACC. New treatment concepts are therefore urgently needed.

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Sara G Creemers, P M van Koetsveld, Wouter W de Herder, Fadime Dogan, Gaston J.h Franssen, R A Feelders and Leo Hofland

Chemotherapy for adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) has limited efficacy and is accompanied by severe toxicity. This lack of effectiveness has been associated with high tumoral levels of the multidrug resistance (MDR) pump P-glycoprotein (P-gp), encoded by the MDR1 gene. In this study, effects of P-gp inhibition on sensitivity of ACC cells to cytotoxic drugs were evaluated. MDR1 mRNA and P-gp expression were determined in human adrenal tissues and cell lines. H295R, HAC15, and SW13 cells were treated with mitotane, doxorubicin, etoposide, cisplatin, and streptozotocin, with or without the P-glycoprotein inhibitors verapamil and tariquidar. Cell growth and surviving fraction of colonies were assessed. MDR1 mRNA and P-gp protein expression were lower in ACCs compared to adrenocortical adenomas (P<0.0001; P<0.01, respectively). MDR1 and P-gp expression were positively correlated in ACC (P<0.0001, ρ = 0.723). Mitotane, doxorubicin, cisplatin, and etoposide dose-dependently inhibited cell growth in H295R, HAC15, and SW13. Tariquidar, and in H295R also verapamil, increased the response of HAC15 and H295R to doxorubicin (6.3 and 7.5 fold EC50 decrease in H295R, respectively; all P<0.0001). Sensitivity to etoposide was increased in H295R and HAC15 by verapamil and tariquidar (all P<0.0001). Findings were confirmed when assessing colony formation. We show that cytotoxic drugs, except streptozotocin, used for ACC treatment, inhibit ACC cell growth and colony formation at clinically achievable concentrations. P-gp inhibition increases sensitivity to doxorubicin and etoposide, suggesting that MDR1 is involved in sensitivity to these drugs and could be a potential target for cytotoxic treatment improvement in ACC.

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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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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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Maria Cristina De Martino, Richard A Feelders, Wouter W de Herder, Peter M van Koetsveld, Fadime Dogan, Joseph A M J L Janssen, A Marlijn Waaijers, Claudia Pivonello, Steven W J Lamberts, Annamaria Colao, Ronald R de Krijger, Rosario Pivonello and Leo J Hofland

The mTOR pathway has recently been suggested as a new potential target for therapy in adrenocortical carcinomas (ACCs). The aim of the current study is to describe the expression of the mTOR pathway in normal adrenals (NAs) and pathological adrenals and to explore whether there are correlation between the expression of these proteins and the in vitro response to sirolimus. For this purpose, the MTOR, S6K1 (RPS6KB1), and 4EBP1 (EIF4EBP1) mRNA expression were evaluated in ten NAs, ten adrenal hyperplasias (AHs), 17 adrenocortical adenomas (ACAs), and 17 ACCs by qPCR, whereas total(t)/phospho(p)-MTOR, t/p-S6K, and t/p-4EBP1 protein expression were assessed in three NAs, three AHs, six ACAs, and 20 ACCs by immunohistochemistry. The effects of sirolimus on cell survival and/or cortisol secretion in 12 human primary cultures of adrenocortical tumors (ATs) were also evaluated. In NAs and AHs, layer-specific expression of evaluated proteins was observed. S6K1 mRNA levels were lower in ACCs compared with NAs, AHs, and ACAs (P<0.01). A subset of ATs presented a moderate to high staining of the evaluated proteins. Median t-S6K1 protein expression in ACCs was lower than that in ACAs (P<0.01). Moderate to high staining of p-S6K1 and/or p-4EBP1 was observed in most ATs. A subset of ACCs not having moderate to high staining had a higher Weiss score than others (P<0.029). In primary AT cultures, sirolimus significantly reduced cell survival or cortisol secretion only in sporadic cases. In conclusion, these data suggest the presence of an activated mTOR pathway in a subset of ATs and a possible response to sirolimus only in certain ACC cases.

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S G Creemers, P M van Koetsveld, F J van Kemenade, T G Papathomas, G J H Franssen, F Dogan, E M W Eekhoff, P van der Valk, W W de Herder, J A M J L Janssen, R A Feelders and L J Hofland

Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) is a rare malignancy with a poor prognosis. Discrimination of ACCs from adrenocortical adenomas (ACAs) is challenging on both imaging and histopathological grounds. High IGF2 expression is associated with malignancy, but shows large variability. In this study, we investigate whether specific methylation patterns of IGF2 regulatory regions could serve as a valuable biomarker in distinguishing ACCs from ACAs. Pyrosequencing was used to analyse methylation percentages in DMR0, DMR2, imprinting control region (ICR) (consisting of CTCF3 and CTCF6) and the H19 promoter. Expression of IGF2 and H19 mRNA was assessed by real-time quantitative PCR. Analyses were performed in 24 ACCs, 14 ACAs and 11 normal adrenals. Using receiver operating characteristic (ROC) analysis, we evaluated which regions showed the best predictive value for diagnosis of ACC and determined the diagnostic accuracy of these regions. In ACCs, the DMR0, CTCF3, CTCF6 and the H19 promoter were positively correlated with IGF2 mRNA expression (P<0.05). Methylation in the most discriminating regions distinguished ACCs from ACAs with a sensitivity of 96%, specificity of 100% and an area under the curve (AUC) of 0.997±0.005. Our findings were validated in an independent cohort of 9 ACCs and 13 ACAs, resulting in a sensitivity of 89% and a specificity of 92%. Thus, methylation patterns of IGF2 regulatory regions can discriminate ACCs from ACAs with high diagnostic accuracy. This proposed test may become the first objective diagnostic tool to assess malignancy in adrenal tumours and facilitate the choice of therapeutic strategies in this group of patients.