To lessen the risk for comorbidity and death, the Endocrine Society’s newly published guidelines on the treatment of Cushing’s syndrome focus on surgical resection of the causal tumor with the goal of normalizing cortisol levels. Furthermore, there is increased emphasis on individualizing treatment options when choosing a second-line treatment.
In July 2015, the Endocrine Society published treatment guidelines to assist endocrinologists in appropriately initiating treatment or referring patients with Cushing’s syndrome to treatment. A task force of experts compiled evidence from systematic reviews and graded the strength of the recommendations.
“We hope that it will lead to improved treatment of comorbidities both before and after definitive treatment of the syndrome, and to increased individualization of patient treatment,” said chair of the task force Lynnette Nieman, MD, who is chief of the Endocrinology Consultation Service at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center.
“There are two new drugs that were approved in 2012, and so I think that is what prompted the review. Still, medications are not the first line of treatment, but we have some new therapeutic options, and I think the idea was to help people understand where to use them,” Julie Sharpless, MD, assistant professor and director of the UNC Multidisciplinary Pituitary Adenoma Program, told Endocrinology Advisor.
“The primary treatment is surgical resection of the causal tumor(s). If that cannot be done (because the tumor is occult or metastatic) or is not successful, then the choice of secondary treatment should be individualized to the patient. The comorbidities of Cushing’s syndrome, for example hypertension and diabetes, should be treated separately as well,” Nieman said.
For example, the guidelines recommend surgical removal of the causative lesion, with the exception of cases which are unlikely to cause a drop in glucocorticoids or in patients who are not surgical candidates.
Likewise, in patients with benign unilateral adrenal adenoma, adrenalectomy by an experienced surgeon has a high rate of cure in children and adults. Because of the poor prognosis associated with adrenal carcinoma, the guidelines highlight the need for complete resection and possibly medical treatment to stabilize cortisol levels.
Other first-line treatment options include recommending surgical resection of ectopic ACTH-secreting tumors; referring to an experienced pituitary surgeon for transsphenoidal selective adenomectomy; treatments to block hormone receptors in bilateral micronodular adrenal hyperplasia; and surgical removal in bilateral adrenal disorders.
The elevated mortality rate seen in patients with Cushing’s syndrome is due to infection, venous thrombosis and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Appropriately lowering cortisol levels improves hypertension, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia and obesity in patients with Cushing’s syndrome. Therefore, the guidelines highlight the need for restoring cortisol levels and treating the associated comorbidities.
Nevertheless, the task force specifically recommends against treatment without an established diagnosis or when there are no signs of Cushing’s syndrome and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal laboratory studies are borderline.
In patients who are not surgical candidates or in cases of noncurative resection, the decision on whether to consider second-line treatment options such as medical therapy, radiation, bilateral adrenalectomy or repeat transsphenoidal surgery should be based on several factors. For instance, the guidelines recommend taking into consideration location and size of the tumor, patient desires, goals of treatment and level of biochemical control.
The guidelines note medical therapy should be based on cost, efficacy and individualization of treatment. Endocrinologists can approach medical therapy with a goal of establishing normal cortisol levels or reducing cortisol levels to very low levels and replacing to achieve desired levels.
Remission in Cushing’s syndrome is associated with notable improvement; however, long-term follow-up is recommended for osteoporosis, CVD and psychiatric conditions.
After treatment, patients may experience reductions in weight, blood pressure, lipids and glucose levels that may allow reduction or discontinuation of medications. Even so, patients with a history of Cushing’s syndrome tend to have higher rates of hypertension, hyperlipidemia and diabetes. Likewise, rates of myocardial infarction are higher in this population, further emphasizing the need for treatment and management of diabetes and hypertension.
Sharpless highlighted that Cushing’s syndrome is rare.
“There are multiple studies that have shown that patients do better when they are treated in a specialty center where people see a lot of cases of this. So in that sense, treatment is not usually going to fall to the general practitioner,” she said.
She continued that the guidelines are helpful and provide guidance to endocrinologist who “can’t readily refer their patient to a pituitary center.”
Sharpless went on to describe the multidisciplinary care involved in Cushing’s syndrome including endocrinologists, neurosurgeons, radiologists, counselors and radiation oncologist.
“When the care is complicated, you want to ensure all of your providers have reviewed your case together and figured out the best plan.”
The guidelines were co-sponsored by the European Society of Endocrinology. Nieman received salary support for her work on the manuscript from the Intramural Research Program of the Eunice Kennedy Shiver Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Members of the task force reported multiple disclosures.
- Nieman LK et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015;100(8):2807-2831.