Neuroendocrine Tumours: a spotlight on Pheochromocytomas and Paragangliomas

spotlight on pheo para

I spend a lot of time talking about the most common forms of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs), but what about the less well-known types?  As part of my commitment to all types of NETs, I’d like to shine a light on two less common tumour types known as Pheochromocytomas and Paragangliomas – incidence rate approximately 8 per million per year. They are normally grouped together and the definitions below will confirm why.  If you think it’s difficult to diagnose a mainstream NET, this particular sub-type is a real challenge.

So, let’s get definitions out of the way:

Pheochromocytomas (Pheo for short)

Pheochromocytomas are tumours of the adrenal gland that produce excess adrenaline. They arise from the central portion of the adrenal gland, which is called the adrenal medulla (the remainder of the gland is known as the cortex which performs a different role and can be associated with a different tumour type). The adrenal medulla is responsible for the normal production of adrenaline, which our body requires to help maintain blood pressure and to help cope with stressful situations.  The adrenal glands are situated on top of the kidneys (i.e. there are two). Adrenaline is also called ‘epinephrine’ which is curiously one of the 5 E’s of Carcinoid Syndrome.

Paragangliomas (Para for short)

Paragangliomas are tumours that grow in cells of the ‘peripheral’ nervous system (i.e. the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord). Like Pheochromocytomas, they can release excess adrenaline.  There can be confusion between the two types of tumour as Paragangliomas are often described as extra-adrenal Pheochromocytomas (i.e. a Pheo external to the adrenal gland).

Going forward, I’m going to talk about both using the single term of ‘Pheochromocytoma’ in the context of an adrenaline secreting tumour but may refer to Paraganglioma where there might be a difference other than anatomical location.

Pheochromocytomas are often referred to as the “ten percent tumour” because as a rule of thumb they do many things about ten percent of the time. However, these figures are slowly changing, so this label is gradually becoming less apparent. The following is a fairly exhaustive list of these characteristics:

A few facts about Pheochromocytomas

  • As much as 1 in 3 are Malignant but most have undetermined biologic potential.  A recent document issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that “Paragangliomas should not be termed benign”.
  • Around 10% of Pheochromocytomas are Bilateral (i.e. found in both adrenal glands: 90% arise in just one of the two adrenal glands)
  • Around 10% are Extra-Adrenal (found within nervous tissue outside of the adrenal glands … i.e. 10% are Paragangliomas)
  • Around 10% are found in Children (i.e. 90% in adults)
  • Up to 30% are Familial potentially rising to 50% for metastatic cases and Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN) involvement.
  • The recurrence rate is around 16%, i.e. about 1 in 6 patients have a tumor that comes back after surgery.  Tumors that come back also have the potential to be malignant. If you have pheo or para and have surgery to remove it, be sure to continue to check in with your doctor to monitor for any returning tumors.
  • Present with a stroke (10% of these tumours are found after the patient has a stroke)

Symptoms

The classic symptoms of Pheochromocytomas are those attributable to excess adrenaline production. Often these patients will have recurring episodes of sweating, headache, and a feeling of high anxiety.

  • Headaches (severe)(one of the classic triad, see below)
  • Excess sweating (generalized)(one of the classic triad, see below)
  • Racing heart (tachycardia and palpitations)(one of the classic triad, see below)
  • Anxiety and nervousness
  • Hypertension
  • Nervous shaking (tremors)
  • Pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen
  • Nausea (with or without vomiting)
  • Weight loss
  • Heat intolerance

Diagnosing Pheochromocytomas

According to the ISI Book on NETs (Woltering, Vinik, O’Dorisio, et al), Pheochromocytomas present with a classic triad of symptoms and signs:  headache, palpitations and sweating.  This symptom complex has a high specificity and sensitivity (>90%) for the diagnosis of Pheochromocytomas.  The figure is much lower in individual symptom presentations (palpitations 50%, sweating 30%, headaches 20%). In addition to correctly diagnosing from these symptoms, Pheochromocytomas may also be found incidentally during a surgical procedure even after a diagnosis of an ‘adrenal incidentaloma’

Markers.  Like serotonin secreting tumours, adrenal secreting tumours convert the offending hormone into something which comes out in urine. In fact, this is measured by 24 hour urine test very similar to 5HIAA (with its own diet and drug restrictions).  It’s known as 24-hour urinary catacholamines and metanephrines. This test is designed to measure production of the different types of adrenaline compounds that the adrenal glands make. Since the body gets rid of these hormones in the urine, we simply collect a patient’s urine for 24 hours to determine if they are over-produced.  Like 5HIAA, there is also a plasma (blood draw) version of the test.  According to the ISI Book on NETs, there is also an additional test called ‘Vanillylmandelic Acid (VMA).  This reference also indicates the most sensitive test is plasma free total metanephrines. Also read more here.

Genetics.  The familial connection with Pheo/Para is complex. Up to 13 genes have been identified including NF1, RET, VHL, SDHA, SDHB, SDHC, SDHD, SDHAF2(SDH5), TMEM127, MAXm EPAS1, FH, MDH2.  Read more here ( recent update)The NIH also have a useful section –click here.

Scans.  Other than the usual range of scanners, ultrasound, CT/MRI, all of which may be used to find evidence of something, the other scan of note is called MIBG.  This is a nuclear scan similar in concept to the Octreotide Scan given to many NET patients (in fact some Pheo patients my get an Octreotide scan if they have somatostatin receptors).  The key differences with MIBG is the liquid radioactive material mix which is called iodine-123-meta-iodobenzylguanidine or 131-meta-iodobenzylguanidine  (this is where the acronym MIBG originates).  Together with the markers above, the results will drive treatment.  Depending on availability, the latest PET scans may also be available potentially offering greater detail and accuracy i.e. 18F-FDOPA, 18F-FDG and Ga68.  Read more on scans here.

This statement and diagram was provided by Dr Mark Lewis who is an Oncologist and MEN patient.  “The algorithm for working up a hyperadrenergic state is attached (and was developed by Dr. Young at Mayo Clinic). It outlines the most reliable testing for a pheo or Paraganglioma”

work-up-for-diagnosing-pheo

Additional Factors and Considerations

  1. This is an awareness post so I’m not covering treatment options in any detail except to say that surgery if often used to remove as much tumour as possible.   Somatostatin Analogues may also be used in certain scenarios in addition to other hormone suppression or symptom controlling drugs. That said, Pheo/Para patients may be interested in a PRRT trial exclusively for Pheo/Para – read more here (see section entitled – “What about Pheo/Para”)
  2. The adrenal cortex mentioned above is actually the site for Adrenocortical Carcinoma (ACC) – this is a totally different cancer.
  3. Pheochromocytomas are probably difficult to diagnose (you only have to look at the symptoms to see that).  The differential diagnoses (i.e. potential misdiagnoses) are: hyperthyroidism, hypoglycaemia, mastocytosis, carcinoid syndrome, menopause, heart failure, arrhythmias, migraine, epilepsy, porphyria lead poisoning, panic attacks and fictitious disorders such as the use of cocaine and benzedrine.
  4. Many Pheochromocytoma patients will also be affected by Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN), in particular MEN2 (there are some wide-ranging percentage figures online for this aspect).  There can also be an association with Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome and less commonly with Neurofibromatosis type 1.
  5. Given the nature of the hormones involved with Pheochromocytomas, there is a risk of intraoperative hypertensive crises. This is similar in some ways to Carcinoid Crisis but needs careful consideration by those involved in any invasive procedure.

Newly Approved Drug – AZEDRA

On 30th July 2018, Progenics Pharmaceuticals Announces FDA Approval for AZEDRA® (iobenguane I 131) to Treat Unresectable, Locally Advanced or Metastatic Pheochromocytoma or Paraganglioma – read more by clicking here.

Summary

Pheochromocytomas are very complex involving many of the challenges found in the more abundant and common types of NETs.  To underscore this statement, please see this case study where one patient was misdiagnosed with psychiatric problems for 13 years before being correctly diagnosed with a metastatic Pheochromocytoma.

Also  ….. take a look at this awareness video produced by the Pheo Para Alliance. I voted this as the best piece of NET awareness in 2017. click here to watch

This is an extremely basic overview offered as an awareness message about the lesser known types of NETs.  I refer you to my disclaimer.  If you wish to learn more about Pheochromocytomas and Paragangliomas, check out the links below.

Research References used in this post:

Know Pheo/Para from Progenics Pharma

ISI – Neuroendocrine Tumors 2016

http://pheopara.org/ (in August 2017, the Pheo Para Troopers and the Pheo Para Project Merged)

http://www.pheosupportfoundation.org/

http://www.pheochromocytoma.org/

http://endocrinediseases.org/

https://www.endocrineweb.com/

Various authoritative Neuroendocrine and Endocrine Sites.

Also ……why not take a look at these Pheo boggers:

  1. Kirsty Dalglishhttps://kirstywestwood.wordpress.com/
  2. to follow

 

 

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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Neuroendocrine Tumours – Let’s give Carcinoid Crisis a red card!

CARCINOID CRISIS NPF 2018 (2)

The word ‘crisis’ has a wide range of meanings and it’s well used in the media to catch the reader’s attention. Lately, the terms ‘political crisis’, financial ‘crisis’ and ‘constitutional crisis’ appear almost daily in media headlines. In a previous life, the term ‘crisis management’ was used daily in the work I was undertaking as I went from problem to problem, dampening or putting out fires (….. that’s a metaphor!).  Thinking back, my adrenaline (epinephrine), norepinephrine, and cortisol must have been very busy! 

However, in the world of Neuroendocrine Tumours (NETs), ‘crisis’ has a very significant meaning and its very mention will make ears prick up.  The word ‘crisis’ is normally spoken or written using the term ‘Carcinoid Crisis’ given this is the type of NET with which it has been mostly associated. However, I’ve studied and researched and it would appear that some form of ‘crisis’ might apply to other types of NETs. Perhaps this is another knock-on effect caused by the historical use of the word ‘Carcinoid’ to incorrectly refer to all NETs. In terms of ‘crisis’, maybe there should be a more generic NETs wide term?  More on that later.

What is ‘Carcinoid Crisis’?

In the simplest of terms, it is a dangerous change in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing (technical term – cardiopulmonary hemodynamic instability).  On an operating table under anaesthetics or an invasive procedure such as liver embolization, this can actually be life threatening.  Incidentally, this happens with many other types of conditions and it is the cause of the ‘cardiopulmonary hemodynamic instability’ that is different with NET patients. For some, it could be a life or death situation.

Why does it happen to some NET Patients?

NETs can release a variety of ‘vasoactive peptides’ (hormones) in excess (e.g. serotonin, catecholamines, histamine).  Under normal circumstances, these would just present as routine syndromes which may need to be controlled in most cases with somatostatin analogue treatment (Octreotide/Lanreotide).

Excess amounts of these vasoactive substances can cause both hypertension and hypotension (high and low blood pressure respectively). In extreme cases this can lead to what is known as a (carcinoid) crisis situation.  It is said by one very well-known NET expert to “not to be something which happens randomly to all patients, it is usually linked to a medical procedure of some sort when you are having anaesthesia”.  Dr Eric Liu also said “Luckily it is relatively uncommon”.

How is the risk managed?

If you research this plus perhaps from your own experience, you will know there are different ideas and ‘protocols’.  However, they all mostly involve some pre-procedure infusion of a somatostatin analogue (normally Octreotide) – although I’d love to hear from anyone who has had Lanreotide as an alternative.  Some doctors or hospitals are known to have their own ‘protocols’ and I’ve uploaded the one from the ISI NET book page 215 (Wang, Boudreaux, O’Dorisio, Vinik, Woltering, et al). Click here.  Please note this is an example rather than a recommendation as this is something the NOLA team have developed for their own centre.  In all the big procedures I’ve had done in my local NET Centre, I have always been admitted the day before to receive what they describe as an ‘Octreotide Soak’.

CARCINOID CRISIS NPF 2018 (3)
Example dosage as shown on the rear of the NET Patient Foundation card (please check with your own physician on required dosage, different centres may have different protocls)

Patients are always asking about the risk and requirements for smaller procedures such as an Endoscopy.  There does not seem to common guidance on this but Dr Woltering who is always forthcoming with advice suggests 200 micrograms of Octreotide before the procedure commences.

Dental visits involving anaesthetics can also be an issue and you can see Dr Woltering’s advice in my blog about the 5 Es of Carcinoid Syndrome.  Additionally there is advice for users of ‘Epi Pens’. You also need to derisk those situations.

Carcinoid Syndrome vs Carcinoid Crisis

I have seen some discussion about the difference between a severe attack of carcinoid syndrome and carcinoid crisis and it’s a really difficult area.  Looking at Dr Liu’s definition, he said it was ‘usually’ linked to a procedure based scenario so I guess it could happen in a non-surgical scenario in extreme cases.  Most people are effectively managed on monthly injections of Octreotide/Lanreotide but some people still need ‘rescue shots’ (top ups) where they are experiencing breakthrough symptoms.  When I was symptomatic (syndromic), I would regularly flush in stressful situations but that was definitely syndrome rather than crisis. Check out my video explaining how I felt.  It’s worth reading something called the 5 E’s of Carcinoid Syndrome, probably useful to other types of NETs as I’m sure there is some overlap.

What about other types of NETs

The ISI Book Link above (here for convenience), does state “regardless of tumor type, all NETs should be pre-treated with Octreotide for protection against crisis“.  I know that NET patients other than those with ‘Carcinoid Tumours’ are also treated with somatostatin analogues, as they too can be subject to the effects of excess secretion of certain vasoactive peptides.

Pheochromocytoma/Paraganglioma

I recently read an article about a person with a Pheochromocytoma (a less common NET that comes from the chromaffin cells of the adrenal medulla and secretes catecholamines).  The person had what was described as an ‘Intraoperative Hypertensive Crisis’ that appeared to be caused by her tumour type rather than the sort of incident that might occur in a standard surgery.  Hypertension (high blood pressure) can be a symptom of Pheochromocytoma so you can see the problem with surgery and other procedures. An interesting issue with this type of NET is that after surgery, the patient is at risk for hypotension (low blood pressure) from venous dilation caused by the sudden withdrawal of catecholamines. Read more here.

Summary

I highly suspect there are many examples from the NET world beyond the ‘carcinoid’ subtype of NETs and I’ve already given you one above.  I’ll update this blog as I discover other examples.  In the meantime, make sure you ask your medical team about ‘crisis protection’ if you are to undergo any surgical or invasive medical procedure. Minor procedures should also be assessed. 

Do we need to rename the term Carcinoid Crisis to Neuroendocrine Crisis?  Probably …… let’s give it a red card!

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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Neuroendocrine Cancer – tumour markers and hormone levels


blood

I think most people have had a form of medical testing at some point in their life, i.e. the sampling and testing of blood, urine, saliva, stool or body tissue. In a nutshell, the medical staff are just measuring the content of a ‘substance’ and then taking a view whether this is normal or not based on pre-determined ranges. These tests are normally done as a physician’s reaction to symptom presentation or maintenance/surveillance of an existing diagnosed condition. Sometimes, abnormal results will lead to more specialist tests.

In cancer, these tests are frequently called ‘markers’. Most tumour markers are made by normal cells as well as by cancer cells; however, they are produced at much higher levels in cancerous conditions. These substances can be found in the blood, urine, stool, tumour tissue, or other tissues or bodily fluids of some patients with cancer. Most tumour markers are proteins. However, more recently, patterns of gene expression and changes to DNA have also begun to be used as tumour markers.  Many different tumour markers have been characterized and are in clinical use. Some are associated with only one type of cancer, whereas others are associated with two or more cancer types. No “universal” tumour marker that can detect any type of cancer has been found.

markers

There are some limitations to the use of tumor markers. Sometimes, noncancerous conditions can cause the levels of certain tumor markers to increase. In addition, not everyone with a particular type of cancer will have a higher level of a tumour marker associated with that cancer. Moreover, tumour markers have not been identified for every type of cancer. Tumour markers are not foolproof and other tests and checks are usually needed to learn more about a possible cancer or recurrence.

I’d also like to talk about a group of associated tests, in particular, hormone levels as these tests are really important to help determine the type of Neuroendocrine Tumour.  NETs will sometimes oversecrete hormones and this can give clues to the type.  The constraints mentioned above apply to hormone levels and other tests to a certain extent.

What this article will not cover

Routine Testing – the post will not cover routine blood tests (i.e. complete blood count etc).  Although they may point to a problem, these tests do not necessarily indicate a particular type of NET without other supporting evidence.

Biopsy Testing – Technically, the Immunohistochemical ‘stains’ used in biopsy testing are tumour markers but I’ll not be discussing that today. I did cover the output of biopsies in my blog on NETs – Stages and Grades.

Genetic Testing.  This is very specialised but you may find my Genetics and NETs article is of interest.

Sequencing of marker testing – diagnosis

The sequencing of marker testing may have been different for many patients.  In my own experience, I had a biopsy and then the biochemical checks were carried out. So regardless of the results of my marker tests, I was to be diagnosed with NETs. Those with lengthy and difficult diagnostic phases will perhaps have had a different sequence with the biochemical markers providing evidence for further tests to formally diagnose.  Markers alone will normally not be enough for a diagnosis but they do, however, feed into the treatment plan and provide a baseline at diagnosis and for tracking going forward.

Interpreting test results – International/National/Regional differences

The use of markers tends to be different on an international basis, e.g. specific marker tests can be developed in-country by independent labs. Testing can also vary in the same country as in-country labs use different commercially available ‘testing kits’. Not all tests are available in all countries.

Reference ranges can be dependent on many factors, including patient age, gender, sample population, and test method, and numeric test results can have different meanings in different laboratories. The lab report containing your test results should include the relevant reference range for your test(s). Please consult your doctor or the laboratory that performed the tests to obtain the reference range if you do not have the lab report. Moreover, the ‘normal’ test range can vary from hospital to hospital, even within the same tests. I suspect clinical staff have their own versions of risk thresholds when dealing with test results. Even when results are just above or below, individual physicians can take their own view in a subjective manner. Testing is best done at the same lab each time if possible.

There’s a great website called LabTestsOnline which can describe each test. It’s peer-reviewed, non-commercial and patient-focused but just please note you should always refer to your own lab ‘normal ranges’ which will be printed on your test results.  For these reasons, you will not find reference ranges for the majority of tests described on this web site.  The link above will take you to the list of ‘country’ affiliated versions with specific information on a country basis.

Here’s some tips I always give people:

1 – Always try to get your own copy of results (preferably on paper) and track them yourself (I use a spreadsheet).

2 – When comparing results inside patient forums, always add the range and if possible, the unit of measurement (i.e. g/L, mmol/L, umol/L etc etc).  Failure to do this can at best confuse, and at worst frighten patients.  Compare apples with apples not with pears! (this is why it’s important to know the unit of measure and the reference range in addition to the figure).

3 – Don’t get too excited about rises if the test is still inside the normal range – normal is normal!

4 – Don’t get too excited about rises taking you just outside of normal range – your doctors are looking for bigger spikes.

5. Don’t get too excited about a single test result, your doctors are looking for trends, a single test result is not much to go on.

NET Markers

Although some routine blood markers (complete blood count etc) are useful in NETs, it’s pretty much impossible to cover these in any general detail.  I’m going to focus on tumor and hormone associated markers

There are many markers involved with NETs. Some do different jobs and some are just variants measuring the same thing (more or less efficiently). You may also see something called ‘gold standard’ in reference to NET Tumour markers. Although thinking is changing (more on this below) and can vary from country to country, it is generally accepted that Chromogranin A and 5HIAA are the gold standard markers for tumour bulk and tumour functionality respectively.  These gold standard tests may not be applicable to every type of NET, particularly 5HIAA. I’m also aware that US doctors are reducing the dependency on CgA and using Pancreastatin instead (although many are measuring both).

NETs are known to be heterogeneous in nature (i.e. consisting of or composed of dissimilar elements; not having a uniform quality throughout).  Whilst some markers can be used widely, it follows that there are many very specialist marker tests for individual types of NET.  I think this applies to 3 broad categories of NETs: Tumours known to potentially oversecrete Serotonin and and perhaps others (mainly midgut), Pancreatic NETs (or pNETs) secreting various hormones by type; and other less common types and/or syndromes which might be considered by some to be even more complex than the former two and in some cases there are big overlaps.

Another interesting thing about NET markers is that an undiagnosed patient may undergo several specialist tests to eliminate the many possibilities that are being presented as vague and common symptoms.  Sometimes this is necessary to eliminate or ‘home in’ on a tumour type or syndrome/hormone involved (it’s that jigsaw thing again!).

Markers too can be divided into broad categories, those measuring how much tumour is in your body and its growth potential and those measuring how functional (or not) those tumours are.  The latter can probably be expanded to measure/assess excess hormone secretion and syndromes.

The Anatomy

Certain tests can be anatomy related so to add context and to prevent big repetitive lists when using the terms ‘foregut’, ‘midgut’ and ‘hindgut’, you may find this graphic useful.

foregut midgut hindgut

Markers for measuring Tumour bulk or load/growth prediction

Chromogranin (plasma/blood test)

cgaChromogranin is an acidic protein released along with catecholamines from chromaffin cells and nerve terminals. This statement alone might explain why it is a good marker to use with NETs.  Depending on the test kit being used, you may see test results for Chromogranin A (CgA) and Chromogranin B (CgB) – the inclusion of CgB tends to be confined to Europe. There is also mention of Chromogranin C (CgC) in places but I’ve never heard of this being used in conjunction with NETs.

One of the disadvantages of CgA is that the results can be skewed by those taking Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs).  Many NET patients are taking PPIs to treat GERD (….and Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome). In the long-term, this has the result of increasing gastrin levels which can lead to an increase of CgA in the blood including for some months after discontinuing. CgB is said not be as influenced by the use of PPI as CgA. In addition to the issue with PPIs, CgA levels may also be elevated in other illnesses including severe hypertension and renal insufficiency. CgB is also said to be more sensitive to Pheochromocytoma.

Elevated CgA is a constant and somewhat excitable discussion point on patient forums and not just because of the lack of unit of measurement use I discussed above. Some people get quite excited about a single test result.  I refer to Dr Woltering et al (ISI Book) where it clearly states that changes in CgA levels of more than 25% over baseline are considered significant and a trend in serial CgA levels over time has been proven to be a useful predictor of tumour growth (i.e. a single test result with an insignificant rise may not be important on its own).  Dr Woltering also gives good advice on marker tests when he says “normal is normal” (i.e. an increased result which is still in range is normal).

Here is a nice graphic explaining what else could be the cause of elevated CgA:

causes-of-cga-elevated

CgA appears to be a widely used tumour marker and is effective in most NETs (foregut, midgut and hindgut). It is also sensitive to Pheochromocytoma, particularly when correlated with a 131I-MIBG scan. Interestingly Chromogranin can also be used in the immunohistochemical staining of NET biopsy samples (along with other methods).

As for my own experience, my CgA was only elevated at diagnosis, remained elevated after intestinal surgery but returned to normal after liver surgery (indicating the effect of liver tumour bulk on results).  It also spiked out of range when some growth in a distant left axillary node was reported in Jan 2012.  Following a lymphadenectomy, it returned to normal again and has remained in range to this day.  It has been a good predictor of tumour bulk for me and I’m currently tested every 6 months.

Pancreastatin

In effect, this marker does the same job as CgA.  Interestingly, Pancreastatin is actually a fragment of the CgA molecule. There have been many studies (mainly in the US) indicating this is a more efficient marker than CgA, and not only because it is not influenced by the use of PPI.  It has also been suggested that it’s more sensitive than CgA and therefore capable of detecting early increases in tumour burden. It has also been suggested it can be an indication of tumour ‘activity’ (whatever that means). It is widely used in the US and some physicians will use it in preference to CgA (…..although from what I read, CgA also seems to be tested alongside).  I’m starting to see this mentioned in the UK.

Neurokinin A (NKA)

This is not a well publicised test. However, it is something used in USA but I’d like to hear from others to validate its use elsewhere.  In a nutshell, this test, which only applies to well differentiated midgut NETs, appears to have some prognostic indication.  I discovered this test in the ISI NET Guidance and it’s backed up by a study authored by names such as Woltering, O’Dorisio, Vinik, et al.  This is not a one-off test but one designed to be taken serially, i.e. a number of consecutive tests.  These authors believe that NKA can also aid in the early identification of patients with more aggressive tumors, allowing for better clinical management of these patients.  NKA is sometimes called Substance K.

Neuron-Specific Enolase (NSE)

In patients with suspected NET who have no clear elevations in the primary tumor markers used to diagnose these conditions, an elevated serum NSE level supports the clinical suspicion.

Markers for measuring Tumour functionality/hormone/peptide levels

So far, I’ve covered basic tumor markers which have a tumor bulk and/or prognostic indication.  This section is a slightly more complex area and many more tests are involved. There’s often a correlation between CgA/Pancreastatin and these type of markers in many patients i.e. a serial high level of CgA might indicate a high level of tumour bulk and therefore increased production of a hormone in patients with a syndrome or oversecreting tumor. However, it frequently does not work out like that, particularly when dealing with non-functioning tumours.

The type of marker for this element of NET diagnosis and surveillance will vary depending on the type of NET and its location (to a certain extent).  Like tumour bulk/growth, there might be different options or test variants on an international basis. There are too many to list here, so I’ll only cover the most common.

Serotonin Secreting Tumors

There are a few markers in use for measuring the functionality of this grouping of tumours. This tumour group has a tendency to secrete excess amounts of the hormone Serotonin although it differs depending on the area of the primary. For example, hindgut tumours tend to secret lower levels than foregut and midgut and therefore this test may present within range.  Please also note there may be other hormones of note involved. The antiquated and misleading term ‘Carcinoid’ is sometimes used as a descriptor for these tumours and more and more NET scientific organisations and specialists are now avoiding use of this term.

lug-the-jug
Lug the Jug

5HIAA.  5HIAA is a metabolite of Serotonin thus why it’s a useful thing to measure to assess functionality in this grouping of tumours. 5HIAA is actually the ‘gold standard’ test for functioning serotonin secreting tumours. It’s a key measure of the effects of carcinoid syndrome and the risk of succumbing to carcinoid heart disease.  However, there are two methods of testing:  Urine and Plasma. The latter is mainly used in USA but other countries are now looking at implementing the plasma version (in fact I’m now tested in both at my local hospital in UK).  The rather obvious key difference between the two is practicality. With the 24 hour urine, there are two key issues: 1.  The logistics (i.e. lug the jug).  2.  Fasting for up to 3 days prior to the test (4 if you count the day of the test). There are numerous variations on the fasting theme but most labs tend to say not to eat at least the following foods that contain high levels of serotonin producing amines: avocados, bananas, chocolate, kiwi fruit, pineapple, plums, tomatoes, and walnuts.  Some lists contain additional items. With the plasma version, the fasting period is reduced to 8 hours. There are also medicinal limitations including drugs that can also alter 5-HIAA urine values, such as acetanilide, phenacetin, glyceryl guaiacolate (found in many cough syrups), methocarbamol, and reserpine. Drugs that can decrease urinary 5-HIAA levels include heparin, isoniazid, levodopa, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, methenamine, methyldopa, phenothiazines, and tricyclic antidepressants. Patients should talk to their doctor before decreasing or discontinuing any medications.

As for my own experience, my 5HIAA (urine) was elevated at diagnosis only returning to normal after removal of my primary and commencement of Lanreotide. It has been a good measure of tumour functionality for me and I’m currently tested every 6 months.

Other tests for the tumour subgroup include but not limited to:

Serum Serotonin (5-HydroxyTryptamine; 5-HT).  Firstly let’s deconflict between 5HIAA above and the serotonin (5-HT) blood test.  5HIAA is a metabolite of serotonin but the serotonin test is a measure of pure serotonin in the blood.  Morning specimens are preferred and this is a fasting test (10-12 hours).  There is always debate on forums about Serum Serotonin results.  I have Dr Liu on record as saying “a high serotonin level measured in the blood in isolation really isn’t that dangerous. It’s the 5HIAA (a breakdown product of serotonin, which is easily measured in the blood and urine) that is considered to be more indicative of persistent elevated hormone. It’s this test that is most closely related to the carcinoid heart disease”.

Substance P.   A substance associated with foregut and midgut tumours.  It is a vasoactive protein that can cause wheezing, diarrhea, tachycardia, flushing

Histamines – Usually associated with foregut tumors. Appears to be involved in patchy rashes and flushing.  The advice in the ISI NET book is no anti-histamine medication to be taken for 48 hours prior to blood draw.

Gastric NETs (Stomach)

Testing will be different depending on the Type:

  • Type 1 – Typical Low Grade, tends to be caused by atrophic gastritis.
  • Type 2 – Atypical Intermediate Grade and tends to be caused by gastrin secreting tumours.  Type 2 normally needs a check for MEN1/Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome.
  • Type 3 – Tend to be larger and more aggressive tumours.

The key makers are CgA and Gastrin although Gastrin may not be elevated in Type 3. Gastrin ph is useful to differentiate between Type 1 and Type 2.  5HIAA can be considered but Carcinoid Syndrome is rare in Gastric NETs.

NETs of the Pancreas (pNETs)

pancreatic-cells
There are many different types of cells in the pancreas

pNETs can be very difficult to diagnose and not only because they share some presentational similarities to their exocrine counterparts.  Some pNETs actually comprise tumours arising in the upper part of the duodenum (small intestine) close to the Pancreas. Moreover, more than half of pNETs are non-functional which increases the difficulty in suspecting and then finding the tumours.  However, where there is clinical presentation or suspicion, these symptoms can lead to the appropriate testing to support the output of scans. The fasting gut profile mentioned above can be useful in identifying the offending hormones when the type of NET is not yet known.

Gut Hormones (Glucagon, Gastrin, VIP, Somatostatin, Pancreatic Polypeptide)

A gut hormone screen is used for the diagnosis of a variety of endocrine tumours of the pancreas area. Analysis includes gastrin, VIP, somatostatin, pancreatic polypeptide, and glucagon, but there may be others depending on processes used by your ordering specialist or hospital.

Notes:

1. You may see this referred to as a ‘Fasting Gut Profile’ or a ‘Fasting Gut Hormone Profile’.

2.  The individual hormones measured seem to differ between hospital labs.

3.  The fasting conditions also vary between hospitals and labs but all agree the conditions are critical to the most accurate results. Always ask for instructions if you’re offered this test.

The gastrin test is usually requested to help detect high levels of gastrin and stomach acid. It is used to help diagnose gastrin-producing tumours called gastrinomas, Zollinger-Ellison (ZE) syndrome, and hyperplasia of G-cells, specialised cells in the stomach that produce gastrin. It may be measured to screen for the presence of multiple endocrine neoplasia type I (MEN) It may be used if a person has abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and recurrent peptic ulcers. A gastrin test may also be requested to look for recurrence of disease following surgical removal of a gastrinoma.

Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) measurement is required for diagnosis of pancreatic tumour or a ganglioneuroma which secretes VIP. Administration of VIP to animals causes hyperglycaemia, inhibition of gastric acid, secretion of pancreatic bicarbonate and of small intestinal juice, and a lowering of systemic blood pressure with skin flush. These features are seen in patients with a tumour of this type which is secreting VIP.

Glucagon is measured for preoperative diagnosis of a glucagon-producing tumour of the pancreas in patients with diabetes and a characteristic skin rash (necrolytic migratory erythema).

Pancreatic polypeptide (PP) production is most commonly associated with tumours producing vasoactive intestinal polypeptide and with carcinoid syndrome and, less commonly, with insulinomas and gastrinomas.

When secreted by endocrine tumours, somatostatin appears to produce symptoms similar to those seen on pharmacological administration, i.e. steatorrhoea, diabetes mellitus and gall stones.

There are several types of pNETs, each with their own syndrome or hormone issue.  When they are suspected due to the presentational symptoms, the markers that could be used are listed below.  These types of tumours are complex and can be related to one or more syndromes.  A patient may be tested using multiple markers to include or exclude these.  Depending on other factors, some physicians may recommend additional marker testing in addition to the most common types below.

Insulinoma – Insulin, Proinsulin, C-peptide

Gastrinoma– Gastrin, Gastrin pH

Glucagonoma – Glucagon, Insulin, Pancreatic Polypeptide (PP), Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)

VIPoma – Vasoactive Intestinal Polypeptide (VIP), Electrolytes (due to profuse diarrhea)

Somatostatinoma – Somatostatin (plasma somatostatin like immunoreactivity)

PPoma – Pancreatic Polypeptide (PP)

Other NETs/Syndromes

Pheochromocytoma/Paraganglioma – Adrenaline-producing tumours. Plasma and urine catecholamines, plasma free total metanephrines, urine total metanephrines, vanillylmandelic acid (VMA)

Medullary Thyroid Cancer. Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) starts as a growth of abnormal cancer cells within the thyroid – the parafollicular C cells. In the hereditary form of medullary thyroid cancer (~20% of cases, often called Familial MTC or FMTC), the growth of these cells is due to a mutation in the RET gene which was inherited. This mutated gene may first produce a premalignant condition called C cell hyperplasia. The parafollicular C cells of the thyroid begin to have unregulated growth. In the inherited forms of medullary thyroid cancer, the growing C cells may form a bump or nodule in any portion of the thyroid gland.  Unlike papillary and follicular thyroid cancers, which arise from thyroid hormone-producing cells, medullary thyroid cancer originates in the parafollicular cells (also called C cells) of the thyroid. These cancer cells make a different hormone called calcitonin, which has nothing to do with the control of metabolism in the way  thyroid hormone does.  The other test often seen in MTC is Carcinoembryonic Antigen (CEA). CEA is a protein that is usually found in the blood at a very low level but might rise in certain cancers, such as medullary thyroid cancer. There is no direct relationship between serum calcitonin levels and extent of medullary thyroid cancer.  However, trending serum calcitonin and CEA levels can be a useful tool for doctors to consider in determining the pace of change of a patient’s medullary cancer.

[please note there are extremely rare occurrences of elevated calcitonin from places outside the thyroid – read more here.

Parathyroid– Parathyroid hormone (PTH), Serum Calcium.  Parathyroid hormone (PTH) is secreted from four parathyroid glands, which are small glands in the neck, located behind the thyroid gland. Parathyroid hormone regulates calcium levels in the blood, largely by increasing the levels when they are too low.  A primary problem in the parathyroid glands, producing too much parathyroid hormone causes raised calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcaemia – primary hyperparathyroidism). You may also be offered an additional test called Parathyroid Hormone-Related Peptide (PTHrP). They would probably also measure Serum Calcium in combination with these type of tests. The parathyroid is one of the ‘3 p’ locations often connected to Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia – MEN 1 – see MEN below.

Pituitary/Cushings – Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), Cortisol.

HPA AXIS – It’s important to note something called the HPA axis when discussing pituitary hormones as there is a natural and important connection and rhythm between the Hypothalamus, Pituitary and the Adrenal glands.

Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is made in the corticotroph cells of the anterior pituitary gland. It’s production is stimulated by receiving corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) from the Hypothalamus. ACTH is secreted in several intermittent pulses during the day into the bloodstream and transported around the body. Like cortisol (see below), levels of ACTH are generally high in the morning when we wake up and fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. Once ACTH reaches the adrenal glands, it binds on to receptors causing the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol, resulting in higher levels of cortisol in the blood. It also increases production of the chemical compounds that trigger an increase in other hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. If too much is released, The effects of too much ACTH are mainly due to the increase in cortisol levels which result. Higher than normal levels of ACTH may be due to:

Cushing’s disease – this is the most common cause of increased ACTH. It is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland (PitNET), which produces excess amounts of ACTH. (Please note, Cushing’s disease is just one of the numerous causes of Cushing’s syndrome). It is likely that a Cortisol test will also be ordered if Cushing’s is suspected.

Cortisol

This is a steroid hormone, one of the glucocorticoids, made in the cortex of the adrenal glands and then released into the blood, which transports it all round the body. Almost every cell contains receptors for cortisol and so cortisol can have lots of different actions depending on which sort of cells it is acting upon. These effects include controlling the body’s blood sugar levels and thus regulating metabolism acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure. Blood levels of cortisol vary dramatically, but generally are high in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. In people who work at night, this pattern is reversed, so the timing of cortisol release is clearly linked to daily activity patterns. In addition, in response to stress, extra cortisol is released to help the body to respond appropriately. Too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time can lead to Cushing’s syndrome.  Cortisol oversecretion can be associated with Adrenal Cortical Carcinoma (ACC) which can sometimes be grouped within the NET family.

Other hormones related to ACC include:

Androgens (e.g. Testosterone) – increased facial and body hair, particularly females. Deepened voice in females.

Estrogen – early signs of puberty in children, enlarged breast tissue in males.

Aldosterone – weight gain, high blood pressure.

Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol and in some cases, the hormone aldosterone. For this reason, the disease is sometimes called chronic adrenal insufficiency, or hypocortisolism.

A tumour outside the pituitary gland, producing ACTH (also called ectopic ACTH). With NETs, this is normally a pNET, Lung/Bronchial NET or Pheochromocytoma.

Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN).  Please note MEN is a group of distinct syndrome not a tumor.  Complex area and tends to be multiple instances of some of the tumours above.  For a breakdown of MEN types and locations, check out my MEN blog ‘Running in the Family’

Carcinoid Heart Disease(CHD) (Hedinger syndrome)  I’m not really talking directly about a tumour here but thought it would be useful to include a blood test called NT-proBNP.  I’ve left a link to my CHD article in the paragraph heading for those who wish to learn more about CHD in general.  For those not offered an annual Echocardiogram or are ‘non-syndromic’ there is a screening test that can give an indication of any heart issue which might then need further checks.

The Future – Molecular Markers?

This is testing using DNA and genes.  Exciting but complex – check out this article which involved some NETs.

Tumour Markers and Hormone levels – complex subject!

tt

Neuroendocrine Cancer Nutrition Series Part 4 – Food for Thought?

Food for thought

Nutrition is an important subject for many cancers but it is particularly important for Neuroendocrine Cancer.  In the previous parts of this series I focussed on the following:

Article 1 – Vitamin and Mineral Challenges.   This was co-authored by Tara Whyand, UK’s most experienced NET Specialist Dietician.  This blog provides a list of vitamins and minerals which NET Cancer patients are at risk for deficiencies, together with some of the symptoms which might be displayed in a deficiency scenario.

Article 2 – Malabsorption.  Overlapping slightly into Part 1, this covers the main side effects of certain NET surgical procedures and other mainstream treatments. Input from Tara Whyand.

Article 3 – ‘Gut Health’.  This followed on from the first two blogs looking specifically at the issues caused by small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) as a consequence of cancer treatment. Also discusses probiotics.  Input from Tara Whyand.

Article 5 – ‘Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy’. The role of PERT (Creon etc) in helping NET Patients. Input from Tara Whyand.

I said in Article 1 that my intention is not to tell you what to eat, even though that might be a challenge for many and this theme continues. The issue with Nutrition and Diet in general, is that it’s very individual and what works for one may not work for another. Rather I’d like to focus in on why such things might have an effect – patients can then experiment and see what works for them. NET patients may have multiple problems and issues (including the effects of eating) which people may be relating to their cancer or the effects of a particular syndrome or treatment (working that out can be difficult!).  Even if I link you to an authoritative site, it will most likely only show GENERAL GUIDELINES, since patients with NET Cancer should really be assessed on a case-by-case basis.  However, I can say that from personal experience, these guidelines are a good base to start in understanding the issue.  You should always seek professional advice from a reliable ‘NETs aware’ nutritionist that can help you determine what your nutritional needs are and also can guide you in the right direction regarding food and supplement intakes.  Be wary of the internet on diet and nutrition, there is much ‘quackery’ out there and normally they want to sell something regardless of whether it’s good for you or not.  Fake healthcare news is big business unfortunately.  You may also enjoy article 2 and article 3 of this series in internet dangers.

In this article, I want to cover the ‘knotty’ problem of what is in food that might be provoking a reaction and why.  The other thing I would emphasise is that the cause of ‘provocation’ might not just be from what you have eaten, but how much. Moreover, whether the cause is syndromic, due to treatment; or from a comorbidity. For example, if you’ve had classic small intestinal NET surgery, you’re likely to be missing a few feet of small intestine and at least your ascending colon and all that goes with that (i.e. you’ve had a right hemicolectomy).  It follows that your food might transit quicker than normal on its journey from mouth to toilet.  There are no doubt other issues which might cause you to ‘move quickly’ and most of these issues will have been covered in Series Articles 1, 2 and 3.  For those with Carcinoid Syndrome, you may also find my blog on the 5 E’s useful.

A high level of serotonin is something people might be looking to avoid due to its relationship with midgut NETs and in particular those with Carcinoid Syndrome. One thing I noticed is that experienced dietitians are not saying you must totally avoid foods associated with serotonin.  I say “associated” because serotonin is not found in foods (another NET myth), it is manufactured from the amines in food.  The only time dieticians would recommend staying totally away from these foods is before and during a 5HIAA urine test (5HIAA is a by-product of serotonin) as this could skew the results. Experienced NET dieticians will also tell you that amines in foods containing the precursor to Serotonin will not affect tumour growth.  

It’s not just a serotonin problem – it is actually a much wider issue with something ‘vasoactive amines’ (or pressor amines).  They are precursors for catecholamines such as adrenaline, which trigger some NETs to secrete vasoactive substances, which cause symptoms or in extreme cases, carcinoid crisis.  Tyramine is the most active of these amines. Other strongly active vasoactive amines found in food include histamine that can cause strong dilation of capillaries, and also cause hypertensive crisis.  Reported reactions from these vasoactive amines are acute hypertension, headache, palpitations, tachycardia, flushing and unconsciousness. As a general rule, Tyramine and other pressor amines are usually only present in aged, fermented, spoiled protein products, but quite often, it’s food containing a precursor amine that is what you are looking for (for example Tryptophan is a precursor to Serotonin).

Personally I cannot think of a single food which causes me to have a ‘reaction’ other than if I eat too much or eat something with a high fat content.  Basically for someone who has had abdominal surgery, the system cannot cope for one reason or more – see Series Article 2.   It’s important to distinguish this type of reaction which is actually something caused by the consequences of cancer treatment rather than one of the ‘syndrome’ effects .  The answer might simply be to reduce or adjust food intake rather than cut foods out, particularly foods that you may need for nutrition and energy.  And of course, foods you enjoy which don’t cause issues, are related to quality of life.

What I do know from masses of experimentation and running a diary, is that large meals can give me issues. However, as hinted above, I put that down to surgery – NOT syndrome.  I also reduced consumption of fatty foods but that was mainly to combat malabsorption caused by my surgery and exacerbated by Somatostatin Analogues. Again NOT syndrome. I reduced alcohol but mainly because I was concerned about my compromised liver after surgery.

So what are the most provocative foods?  This diagram here is extremely handy BUT I must emphasise that the cause of the provocation may not have been caused by the food itself, just what people think and reported (clearly scientific intervention might prove it was caused by something else).  Everyone is different, so some people might not have any reaction to these foods.  As you can see, a large meal is top and I can almost guarantee much of this was caused by people having a shorter bowel due to surgery.

foods provoking
Graphic courtesy of The Carcinoid Cancer Foundation (CCF)

What are the foods containing high levels of these vasoactive amines?  It is here that I refer you to a site which was one of the very first things I read after my diagnosis, and I re-read it after my initial treatment when I discovered that my debulking and cytoreductive surgery came with some consequences.   This is an amazing piece of research put together by the late Monica Warner (wife of Dr Richard Warner) who herself said “It has not been an easy task to put these guidelines together“.  I don’t believe there is another source of such detailed research and guidelines on the Nutritional Concerns for the NET Patient (note the term Carcinoid is used throughout, therefore it tends to be focused on carcinoid syndrome.  Many other NET Syndromes have associated diet and nutrition constraints and problems too.

This is not an exact science and as the author said “I must emphasize at this point that these are only GENERAL GUIDELINES since patients with carcinoid (sic) may have multiple problems and must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”. So for example eating a big meal comes out top of the survey and does not necessarily mean that is caused by carcinoid syndrome – as I said above, it’s very frequently caused by having a shorter gut, or no gallbladder, and other issues. You can eat a large meal containing very low levels of the offending amines and still run to the bathroom because your waste disposal system can’t cope with the amount – that is not a syndrome problem.  One person’s perceived ‘syndrome’ problem is another person’s cancer treatment ‘side effect’.  Working out which one is not easy but it’s worth the effort to try to understand which one might be causing the problem.

READ THE RESEARCH AND GUIDELINES BY CLICKING HERE

I hope you found my ‘food for thought’ tasty 🙂

Other useful links which have an association to this blog:

{a} Read a Nutrition Booklet co-authored by Tara – CLICK HERE

{b} Follow Tara on Twitter – CLICK HERE

{c} Watch a video of Tara presenting to a group of NET Patients – CLICK HERE

{d} Now Watch Tara answering the Q&A from patients – I enjoyed this – NET patients are very inquisitive! CLICK HERE

[e] There is an excellent video from the NET Research Foundation (what to eat and why) – CLICK HERE

 

You can hear me talk about my diagnosis by clicking here

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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Neuroendocrine Cancer – Hormones

HormonesNET 2018

Until I was diagnosed with metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer, I didn’t have a clue about hormones – it’s one of those things you just take for granted. However, hormones are vital to human health (male and female) and it’s only when things go wrong you suddenly appreciate how important they are ……..like a lot of other things in life I suppose! The presence of over-secreting hormones (often called peptides throughout) is useful to aid diagnosis albeit it often means the tumours have metastasized. It’s also a frequent indication that the person has an associated NET syndrome.

This is a really complex area and to understand the hormone problems associated with Neuroendocrine Cancer, you need to have a basic knowledge of the endocrine and neuroendocrine systems.  I’ve no intention of explaining that (!) – other than the following high level summary:

  • Glands in the endocrine system use the bloodstream to monitor the body’s internal environment and to communicate with each other through substances called hormones, which are released into the bloodstream.  Endocrine glands include; Pituitary, Hypothalmus, Thymus, Pineal, Testes, Ovaries Thyroid, Adrenal, Parathyroid, Pancreas.
  • A Hormone is a chemical that is made by specialist cells, usually within an endocrine gland, and it is released into the bloodstream to send a message to another part of the body. It is often referred to as a ‘chemical messenger’. In the human body, hormones are used for two types of communication. The first is for communication between two endocrine glands, where one gland releases a hormone which stimulates another target gland to change the levels of hormones that it is releasing. The second is between an endocrine gland and a target organ, for example when the pancreas releases insulin which causes muscle and fat cells to take up glucose from the bloodstream. Hormones affect many physiological activities including growth, metabolism, appetite, puberty and fertility.
  • The Endocrine system. The complex interplay between the glands, hormones and other target organs is referred to as the endocrine system.
  • The Neuroendocrine System. The diffuse neuroendocrine system is made up of neuroendocrine cells scattered throughout the body.  These cells receive neuronal input and, as a consequence of this input, release hormones to the blood. In this way they bring about an integration between the nervous system and the endocrine system (i.e. Neuroendocrine).  A complex area but one example of what this means is the adrenal gland releasing adrenaline to the blood when the body prepares for the ‘fight or flight’ response in times of stress, ie, for vigorous and/or sudden action.

Hormones – The NET Effect

Hormones – the NET Effect

At least one or more hormones will be involved at various sites and even within certain syndromes, the dominant and offending hormone may differ between anatomical tumour sites. For example, NETs of the small intestine, lung or appendix (and one or two other places) may overproduce serotonin and other hormones which can cause a characteristic collection of symptoms currently called carcinoid syndrome.   The key symptoms are flushing, diarrhea and general abdominal pain, loss of appetite, fast heart rate and shortness of breath and wheezing. The main symptom for me was facial flushing and this was instrumental in my eventual diagnosis. The fact that I was syndromic at the point of diagnosis made it easier to discover, albeit the trigger for the investigation was a fairly innocuous event.  Other types of NETs are also affected by the overproduction of hormones including Insulinomas, Gastrinomas, Glucagonomas, VIPomas, Somatostatinomas, and others.  These can cause their own syndromes and are not part of carcinoid syndrome as some organisations incorrectly state. For more on NET syndromes – Read Here.

So are hormones horrible? 

Absolutely not, they are essential to the normal function of the human body.  For example if you didn’t have any of the hormone Serotonin in your system, you would become extremely ill.  On the other hand, if your glands start secreting too much of certain hormones, your body could become dysfunctional and in some scenarios, this situation could become life threatening.  So hormones are good as long as the balance is correct. NET patients with an oversecreting tumor may be classed as “functional”.

  • Functional tumors make extra amounts of hormones, such as gastrin, insulin, and glucagon, that cause signs and symptoms.
  • Nonfunctional tumors do not make extra amounts of hormones. Signs and symptoms are caused by the tumor as it spreads and grows. Many NET patients are deemed to be “non-functioning” with normal hormone levels. It’s also accurate to say that many can move from one stage to the other.

Location Location Location

It’s accurate to say that the type and amount of hormone secretion differs between locations or sites of the functional tumor and this can also create different effects.  The division of NETs into larger anatomical regions appears to differ depending on where you look but they all look something likes this:

Foregut NETs: In the respiratory tract, thymus, stomach, duodenum, and pancreas. This group mostly lack the enzyme aromatic amino decarboxylase that converts 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan – a precursor to serotonin) to serotonin (5-HT); such tumours tend to produce 5-HTP and histamine instead of serotonin.  The Pancreas is a particularly prominent endocrine organ and can produce a number of different syndromes each with their associated hormone oversecretion – although many can be non-functional (at least to begin with). Lung NETs rarely produce serotonin, but may instead secrete histamine causing an ‘atypical’ carcinoid syndrome with generalized flushing, diarrhea, periorbital oedema, lacrimation and asthma. They may also produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ATCH) or corticotropin-releasing factor (CRP), resulting in an ectopic Cushing’s syndrome. Please note the respiratory tract and thymus are not really anatomically pure ‘Foregut’ – but in NETs, grouped there for convenience. 

Midgut NETs: In the small intestine, appendix, and ascending colon. For example, serotonin secreting tumors tend to be associated with carcinoid syndrome which tends to be associated with midgut NETs and this is normally the case. Many texts will also tell you that a syndrome only occurs at a metastatic stage.  Both are a good rule of thumb but both are technically incorrect. For example, ovarian NETs can have a form of carcinoid syndrome without liver metastasis (tends to be described as atypical carcinoid syndrome). It’s also possible to see serotonin secreting tumors in places such as the pancreas (although what you would call that type of NET is open for debate).

Hindgut NETs (transverse, descending colon and rectum) cannot convert tryptophan to serotonin and other metabolites and therefore rarely cause carcinoid syndrome even if they metastasise to the liver.

Less Common Locations – there are quite a few less common NET locations which may involve less common hormones – some are covered below including the key glands contributing to NETs.

Unknown Primary? –  One clue to finding the primary might be by isolating an offending hormone causing symptoms.

The key NET hormones

Serotonin

I used the example of Serotonin above because it is the most cited problem with NET Cancer although it does tend to be most prevalent in midgut tumors. Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter synthesized from Tryptophan, one of the eight essential amino acids (defined as those that cannot be made in the body and therefore must be obtained from food or supplements). About 90% of serotonin produced in the body is found in the enterochromaffin cells of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract where it is used mainly to regulate intestinal movements amongst other functions. The remainder is synthesized in the central nervous system where it mainly regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. Please note there is no transfer of serotonin across the blood-brain barrier.

Alterations in tryptophan metabolism may account for many symptoms that accompany carcinoid syndrome. Serotonin in particular is the most likely cause of many features of carcinoid syndrome as it stimulates intestinal motility and secretion and inhibits intestinal absorption. Serotonin may also stimulate fibroblast growth and fibrogenesis and may thus account for peritoneal and valvular fibrosis encountered in such tumours; serotonin, however, it is said not to be associated with flushing. The diversion of tryptophan to serotonin may lead to tryptophan deficiency as it becomes unavailable for nicotinic acid synthesis, and is associated with reduced protein synthesis and hypoalbuminaemia; this may lead to the development of pellagra (skin rash, glossitis, stomatitis, confusion/dementia).

Serotonin is also thought to be responsible for ‘right sided’ heart disease (Carcinoid Heart Disease). It is thought that high levels of serotonin in the blood stream damages the heart, leading to lesions which cause fibrosis, particularly of the heart valves. This generally affects the right side of the heart when liver metastases are present. The left side of the heart is usually not affected because the lungs can break down serotonin. Right sided heart failure symptoms include swelling (edema) in the extremities and enlargement of the heart.

Whilst serotonin can be measured directly in the blood, it’s said to be more accurate to measure 5HIAA (the output of serotonin) via blood or urine, the latter is said to be the most accurate.

Tachykinins

Tackykinins include Substance P, Neurokinin A, Neuropeptide K and others. They are active in the enterochromaffin cells of the GI tract but can also be found in lung, appendiceal and ovarian NETs, and also in Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma and Pheochromocytomas. They are thought to be involved in flushing and diarrhea in midgut NETs. The most common tachykinin is Substance P, which is a potent vasodilator (substances which open up blood vessels). Telangiectasias are collections of tiny blood vessels which can develop superficially on the faces of people who have had NETs for several years. They are most commonly found on the nose or upper lip and are purplish in color. They are thought to be due to chronic vasodilatation.

Histamine

Histamine is a hormone that is chemically similar to the hormones serotonin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. After being made, the hormone is stored in a number of cells (e.g., mast cells, basophils, enterochromaffin cells). Normally, there is a low level of histamine circulating in the body. However (and as we all know!), the release of histamine can be triggered by an event such as an insect bite. Histamine causes the inconvenient redness, swelling and itching associated with the bite. For those with severe allergies, the sudden and more generalized release of histamine can be fatal (e.g., anaphylactic shock). Mast cell histamine has an important role in the reaction of the immune system to the presence of a compound to which the body has developed an allergy. When released from mast cells in a reaction to a material to which the immune system is allergic, the hormone causes blood vessels to increase in diameter (e.g., vasodilation) and to become more permeable to the passage of fluid across the vessel wall. These effects are apparent as a runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. Other symptoms can include itching, burning and swelling in the skin, headaches, plugged sinuses, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Histamine can also be released into the lungs, where it causes the air passages to become constricted rather than dilated. This response occurs in an attempt to keep the offending allergenic particles from being inhaled. Unfortunately, this also makes breathing difficult. An example of such an effect of histamine occurs in asthma. Histamine has also been shown to function as a neurotransmitter (a chemical that facilitates the transmission of impulses from one neural cell to an adjacent neural cell).

In cases of an extreme allergic reaction, adrenaline is administered to eliminate histamine from the body. For minor allergic reactions, symptoms can sometimes be lessened by the use of antihistamines that block the binding of histamine to a receptor molecule.  Histamine is thought to be involved with certain types and locations of NET, including Lung and foregut NETs where they can cause pulmonary obstruction, atypical flush and hormone syndromes.

Histamine, another amine produced by certain NETs (particularly foregut), may be associated with an atypical flushing and pruritus; increased histamine production may account for the increased frequency of duodenal ulcers observed in these tumours.

Kallikrein

Kallikrein is a potent vasodilator and may account for the flushing and increased intestinal mobility.

Prostaglandins

Although prostaglandins are overproduced in midgut tumours, their role in the development of the symptoms of carcinoid syndrome is not well established but triggering peristalsis is mentioned in some texts.

Bradykinin

Bradykinin acts as a blood vessel dilator. Dilation of blood vessels can lead to a rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) and a drop in blood pressure (hypotension). Dilation of blood vessels may also be partly responsible for the flushing associated with carcinoid syndrome.

Gastrin

Gastrin is a hormone that is produced by ‘G’ cells in the lining of the stomach and upper small intestine. During a meal, gastrin stimulates the stomach to release gastric acid. This allows the stomach to break down proteins swallowed as food and absorb certain vitamins. It also acts as a disinfectant and kills most of the bacteria that enter the stomach with food, minimising the risk of infection within the gut. Gastrin also stimulates growth of the stomach lining and increases the muscle contractions of the gut to aid digestion. Excess gastrin could indicate a NET known as a Gastric NET (stomach) or a pNET known as Gastrinoma (see pancreatic hormones below).

Endocrine Organs

Thyroid Gland

Calcitonin is a hormone that is produced in humans by the parafollicular cells (commonly known as C-cells) of the thyroid gland. Calcitonin is involved in helping to regulate levels of calcium and phosphate in the blood, opposing the action of parathyroid hormone. This means that it acts to reduce calcium levels in the blood. This hormone tends to involve Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma and Hyperparathyroidism in connection to those with Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia. Worth also pointing out the existence of Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide (CGRP) which is a member of the calcitonin family of peptides and a potent vasodilator.  Please note that hypothyroidism is often a side effect of NETs or treatment for NETs – please click here to read about the connection.

Pituitary Gland

HPA AXIS – It’s important to note something called the HPA axis when discussing pituitary hormones as there is a natural and important connection and rhythm between the Hypothalamus, Pituitary and the Adrenal glands. However, I’m only covering the pituitary and adrenal due to their strong connection with NETs.

Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ATCH) is made in the corticotroph cells of the anterior pituitary gland. It’s production is stimulated by receiving corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) from the Hypothalamus. ATCH is secreted in several intermittent pulses during the day into the bloodstream and transported around the body. Like cortisol (see below), levels of ATCH are generally high in the morning when we wake up and fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. Once ACTH reaches the adrenal glands, it binds on to receptors causing the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol, resulting in higher levels of cortisol in the blood. It also increases production of the chemical compounds that trigger an increase in other hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. If too much is released, The effects of too much ATCH are mainly due to the increase in cortisol levels which result. Higher than normal levels of ATCH may be due to:

Cushing’s disease – this is the most common cause of increased ATCH. It is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland (PitNET), which produces excess amounts of ATCH. (Please note, Cushing’s disease is just one of the numerous causes of Cushing’s syndrome). It is likely that a Cortisol test will also be ordered if Cushing’s is suspected.

A tumour outside the pituitary gland, producing ATCH is known as an ectopic ATCH. With NETs, this is normally a pNET, Lung/Bronchial/Pulmonary NET or Pheochromocytoma.

Adrenal Glands

Adrenaline and Noradrenline

These are two separate but related hormones and neurotransmitters, known as the ‘Catecholamines’. They are produced in the medulla of the adrenal glands and in some neurons of the central nervous system. They are released into the bloodstream and serve as chemical mediators, and also convey the nerve impulses to various organs. Adrenaline has many different actions depending on the type of cells it is acting upon.  However, the overall effect of adrenaline is to prepare the body for the ‘fight or flight’ response in times of stress, i.e. for vigorous and/or sudden action. Key actions of adrenaline include increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, expanding the air passages of the lungs, enlarging the pupil in the eye, redistributing blood to the muscles and altering the body’s metabolism, so as to maximise blood glucose levels (primarily for the brain). A closely related hormone, noradrenaline, is released mainly from the nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system (as well as in relatively small amounts from the adrenal medulla). There is a continuous low-level of activity of the sympathetic nervous system resulting in release of noradrenaline into the circulation, but adrenaline release is only increased at times of acute stress.  These hormones are normally related to adrenal and extra adrenal NETs such as Pheochromocytoma and Paraganglioma.  Like serotonin secreting tumours, adrenal secreting tumours convert the offending hormone into something which comes out in urine. In fact, this is measured (amongst other tests) by 24 hour urine test very similar to 5HIAA (with its own diet and drug restrictions).  It’s known as 24-hour urinary catacholamines and metanephrines.  Worth noting that adrenaline is also known as Epinephrine (one of the 5 E’s of Carcinoid Syndrome).

Cortisol

This is a steroid hormone, one of the glucocorticoids, made in the cortex of the adrenal glands and then released into the blood, which transports it all round the body. Almost every cell contains receptors for cortisol and so cortisol can have lots of different actions depending on which sort of cells it is acting upon. These effects include controlling the body’s blood sugar levels and thus regulating metabolism acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure. Blood levels of cortisol vary dramatically, but generally are high in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. In people who work at night, this pattern is reversed, so the timing of cortisol release is clearly linked to daily activity patterns. In addition, in response to stress, extra cortisol is released to help the body to respond appropriately. Too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time can lead to Cushing’s syndrome.  Cortisol oversecretion can be associated with Adrenal Cortical Carcinoma (ACC) which can sometimes be grouped within the NET family.

Other hormones related to ACC include:

Androgens (e.g. Testosterone) – increased facial and body hair, particularly females. Deepened voice in females.

Estrogen – early signs of puberty in children, enlarged breast tissue in males.

Aldosterone – weight gain, high blood pressure.

Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol and in some cases, the hormone aldosterone. For this reason, the disease is sometimes called chronic adrenal insufficiency, or hypocortisolism.

Parathyroid

Parathyroid hormone (PTH) is secreted from four parathyroid glands, which are small glands in the neck, located behind the thyroid gland. Parathyroid hormone regulates calcium levels in the blood, largely by increasing the levels when they are too low.  A primary problem in the parathyroid glands, producing too much parathyroid hormone causes raised calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcaemia – primary hyperparathyroidism). You may also be offered an additional test called Parathyroid Hormone-Related Peptide (PTHrP). They would probably also measure Serum Calcium in combination with these type of tests. The parathyroid is one of the ‘3 p’ locations often connected to Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia – MEN 1

Pancreatic Hormones (Syndromes)

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors form in hormone-making cells of the pancreas. You may see these described as ‘Islet Cells’ or ‘Islets of Langerhans’ after the scientist who discovered them. Pancreatic NETs may also be functional or non-functional:

  • Functional tumors make extra amounts of hormones, such as gastrin, insulin, and glucagon, that cause signs and symptoms.
  • Nonfunctional tumors do not make extra amounts of hormones. Signs and symptoms are caused by the tumor as it spreads and grows.

There are different kinds of functional pancreatic NETs. Pancreatic NETs make different kinds of hormones such as gastrin, insulin, and glucagon. Functional pancreatic NETs include the following:

  • Gastrinoma: A tumor that forms in cells that make gastrin. Gastrin is a hormone that causes the stomach to release an acid that helps digest food. Both gastrin and stomach acid are increased by gastrinomas. When increased stomach acid, stomach ulcers, and diarrhea are caused by a tumor that makes gastrin, it is called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome. A gastrinoma usually forms in the head of the pancreas and sometimes forms in the small intestine. Most gastrinomas are malignant (cancer).
  • Insulinoma: A tumor that forms in cells that make insulin. Insulin is a hormone that controls the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. It moves glucose into the cells, where it can be used by the body for energy. Insulinomas are usually slow-growing tumors that rarely spread. An insulinoma forms in the head, body, or tail of the pancreas. Insulinomas are usually benign (not cancer).
  • Glucagonoma: A tumor that forms in cells that make glucagon. Glucagon is a hormone that increases the amount of glucose in the blood. It causes the liver to break down glycogen. Too much glucagon causes hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). A glucagonoma usually forms in the tail of the pancreas. Most glucagonomas are malignant (cancer).
  • Pancreatic Polypeptide (PPoma). A pancreatic polypeptide is a polypeptide hormone secreted by the pancreatic polypeptide (PP) cells of the islets of Langerhans in the endocrine portion of the pancreas. Its release is triggered in humans by protein-rich meals, fasting, exercise, and acute hypoglycemia and is inhibited by somatostatin and intravenous glucose. The exact biological role of pancreatic polypeptide remains uncertain. Excess PP could indicate a pNET known as PPoma.
  • Other types of tumors: There are other rare types of functional pancreatic NETs that make hormones, including hormones that control the balance of sugar, salt, and water in the body. These tumors include:
  • VIPomas, which make vasoactive intestinal peptide. VIPoma may also be called Verner-Morrison syndrome, pancreatic cholera syndrome, or the WDHA syndrome (Watery Diarrhea, Hypokalemia (low potassium)and Achlorhydria).
  • Somatostatinomas, which make somatostatin. Somatostatin is a hormone produced by many tissues in the body, principally in the nervous and digestive systems. It regulates a wide variety of physiological functions and inhibits the secretion of other hormones, the activity of the gastrointestinal tract and the rapid reproduction of normal and tumour cells. Somatostatin may also act as a neurotransmitter in the nervous system.

The pancreas is one of the ‘3 p’ locations often connected to Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia – MEN 1

Having certain syndromes can increase the risk of pancreatic NETs.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) syndrome is a risk factor for pancreatic NETs.

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic NETs

Signs or symptoms can be caused by the growth of the tumor and/or by hormones the tumor makes or by other conditions. Some tumors may not cause signs or symptoms. Check with your doctor if you have any of these problems.

Signs and symptoms of a non-functional pancreatic NET

A non-functional pancreatic NET may grow for a long time without causing signs or symptoms. It may grow large or spread to other parts of the body before it causes signs or symptoms, such as:

  • Diarrhea.
  • Indigestion.
  • A lump in the abdomen.
  • Pain in the abdomen or back.
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes.

Signs and symptoms of a functional pancreatic NET

The signs and symptoms of a functional pancreatic NET depend on the type of hormone being made.

Too much gastrin may cause:

  • Stomach ulcers that keep coming back.
  • Pain in the abdomen, which may spread to the back. The pain may come and go and it may go away after taking an antacid.
  • The flow of stomach contents back into the esophagus (gastroesophageal reflux).
  • Diarrhea.

Too much insulin may cause:

  • Low blood sugar. This can cause blurred vision, headache, and feeling lightheaded, tired, weak, shaky, nervous, irritable, sweaty, confused, or hungry.
  • Fast heartbeat.

Too much glucagon may cause:

  • Skin rash on the face, stomach, or legs.
  • High blood sugar. This can cause headaches, frequent urination, dry skin and mouth, or feeling hungry, thirsty, tired, or weak.
  • Blood clots. Blood clots in the lung can cause shortness of breath, cough, or pain in the chest. Blood clots in the arm or leg can cause pain, swelling, warmth, or redness of the arm or leg.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Sore tongue or sores at the corners of the mouth.

Too much vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) may cause:

  • Very large amounts of watery diarrhea.
  • Dehydration. This can cause feeling thirsty, making less urine, dry skin and mouth, headaches, dizziness, or feeling tired.
  • Low potassium level in the blood. This can cause muscle weakness, aching, or cramps, numbness and tingling, frequent urination, fast heartbeat, and feeling confused or thirsty.
  • Cramps or pain in the abdomen.
  • Facial flushing.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.

Too much somatostatin may cause:

  • High blood sugar. This can cause headaches, frequent urination, dry skin and mouth, or feeling hungry, thirsty, tired, or weak.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Steatorrhea (very foul-smelling stool that floats).
  • Gallstones.
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.

Too much pancreatic polypeptide may cause:

  • belly pain.
  • an enlarged liver.

Testing hormones

Clearly the presenting symptoms will give doctors a clue to the oversecreting hormone (see list above). Excessive secretions or high levels of hormones and other substances can be measured in a number of ways. For example:

Well known tests for the most common types of NET include 5-Hydroxyindoleacetic Acid (5-HIAA) 24 hour urine test which is also measured by a blood draw. Note: -tumor markers can be measured simultaneously e.g. Chromogranin A (CgA) blood test and/or Pancreastatin as there can very often be a correlation between tumour mass and tumour secreting activity. CgA / Pancreastatin is a blood test which measures a protein found in many NET tumour cells. These marker tests are normally associated with tumour mass rather than tumour functionality.

By measuring the level of 5-HIAA in the urine or blood, healthcare providers can calculate the amount of serotonin in the body (5-HIAA is a by-product of serotonin).  5-HIAA test is the most common biochemical test for carcinoid syndrome or the degree of how ‘functional’ tumours are.  If you’ve understood the text above, you can now see why there are dietary and drug restrictions in place prior to the test.

Pancreatic Hormone testing. There are other tests for other hormones and there is a common test which measured the main hormones seen in NETs. It may be called different things in different countries, but in UK, it’s known as a ‘Fasting Gut Hormone Profile‘.

Scratching the surface here so for a comprehensive list of marker tests for NETs, have a read here.

Treatment for Over-secreting Hormones

Of course, reducing tumour bulk through surgery and other treatment modalities, should technically reduce over-secretion (I suspect that doesn’t work for all).  Other treatments may have the dual effect of reducing tumour burden and the effects of hormone oversecretions.

One of the key treatment breakthroughs for many NET cancer patients, is the use of ‘Somatostatin Analogues’ mainly branded as Octreotide (Sandostatin) or Lanreotide (Somatuline). People tend to associate these drugs with serotonin related secretions and tumours but they are in actual fact useful for many others including the pancreatic NETs listed above.  Patients will normally be prescribed these drugs if they are displaying these symptoms but some people may be more avid to the drug than others and this may influence future use and dosages. This is another complex area but I’ll try to describe the importance here in basic terms. Somatostatin is a naturally occurring protein in the human body. It is an inhibitor of various hormones secreted from the endocrine system (some of which were listed above) and it binds with high affinity to the five somatostatin receptors found on secretory endocrine cells. NETs have membranes covered with receptors for somatostatin. However, the naturally occurring Somatostatin has limited clinical use due to its short half-life (<3 min). Therefore, specific somatostatin analogues (synthetic versions) have been developed that bind to tumours and block hormone release. Thus why Octreotide and Lanreotide do a good job of slowing down hormone production, including many of the gut hormones controlling emptying of the stomach and bowel.  It also slows down the release of hormones made by the pancreas, including insulin and digestive enzymes – so there can be side effects including fat malabsorption.

The recent introduction of Telotristat Ethyl (XERMELO) is interesting as that inhibits a precursor to serotonin and reduces diarrhea in those patients where it is not adequately controlled by somatostatin analogues.

Other than the effects of curative or cytoreductive surgery, some NETs may have very specialist drugs for inhibiting the less common hormone types.  This is not an exhaustive list.

Worth also noting that oversecreting hormones can contribute to a phenomenon known as Carcinoid Crisis – read more here.  For catacholamine secreting tumors (Pheochromocytoma/Paraganglioma), this may be known as Intraoperative Hypertensive Crisis

Sorry about the long article – it’s complex and you should always consult your specialist about issues involving hormones, testing for hormones and treating any low or high scores.

Thanks for reading

Ronny

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