The majority of cases of Cushing's disease are due to an underlying pituitary corticotroph microadenoma (< or = 10 mm). Corticotroph macroadenomas (> 10 mm) are a less common cause of Cushing's disease, and little is known about specific clinical and biochemical findings in such patients. To define further the clinical characteristics of patients with corticotroph macroadenomas, we performed a retrospective review of Cushing's disease due to macroadenomas seen at Massachusetts General Hospital between 1979 and 1995. Of 531 patients identified with a diagnostic code of Cushing's syndrome, 20 were determined to have Cushing's disease due to a macroadenoma based on radiographic evidence of pituitary adenoma greater than 10 mm and pathological confirmation of a pituitary adenoma. A comparison review of charts of 24 patients with Cushing's disease due to corticotroph microadenomas identified on the basis of radiographic evidence of a normal pituitary gland or a pituitary adenoma 10 mm or less in diameter was also performed. The mean ages of the patients (+/- SD) with macroadenomas and microadenomas were similar (39 +/- 12 and 38 +/- 14 yr, respectively). The baseline median 24-h urine free cortisol (UFC) excretion was 1341 nmol/day (range, 304-69,033 nmol/day) and 877 nmol/day (range, 293-2,558 nmol/day) for macroadenoma and microadenoma patients, respectively (P = 0.058). After the 48-h high dose dexamethasone suppression test, UFC decreased by 77 +/- 19% (mean +/- SD) and 91 +/- 7% in macroadenoma and microadenoma subjects, respectively (P = 0.04). Fifty-six percent of macroadenoma patients and 92% of microadenoma patients had greater than 80% suppression of UFC after high dose dexamethasone administration (P = 0.03). The baseline median 24-h urinary 17-hydroxysteroid (17-OHCS) excretion was 52 mumol/day (range, 25-786 mumol/day) and 44 mumol/day (range, 17-86 mumol/day) for macroadenoma and microadenoma subjects, respectively (P = 0.09). After the standard high dose dexamethasone suppression test, 17-OHCS excretion decreased by 46 +/- 33% and 72 +/- 22% for macroadenoma and microadenoma subjects, respectively (P = 0.02). Fifty-three percent of patients with macroadenomas and 86% of patients with microadenomas had greater than 50% suppression of 17-OHCS after high dose dexamethasone administration (P = 0.02). Baseline plasma ACTH values were above the normal range in 83.3% of macroadenoma patients and in 45% of microadenoma subjects (P = 0.05). Tumors were immunostained with the MIB-1 antibody for Ki-67 to investigate proliferation in the adenomas. There was a trend for a higher Ki-67 labeling index in corticotroph macroadenomas, and seven (44%) macroadenomas vs. three (18%) microadenomas had labeling indexes greater than 3%, but this was not statistically significant. In summary, corticotroph macroadenomas are often associated with less glucocorticoid suppressibility than the more frequently occurring microadenomas. Therefore, the lack of suppression of UFC or 17-OHCS after the administration of high dose dexamethasone in a patient with Cushing's disease does not necessarily imply the presence of ACTH-independent Cushing's syndrome and is more commonly seen in patients with corticotroph macroadenomas than in those with microadenomas. Increased plasma ACTH concentrations are typical of patients with corticotroph macroadenomas and may be a more sensitive indicator of neoplastic corticotrophs than the UFC or 17-OHCS response to standard high dose dexamethasone testing.
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