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B Ambrosi, L Barbetta, T Re, E Passini and G Faglia

The possibility of assessing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function by the standard ACTH test (250 microg) has been widely discussed in the past years and compared with the role of the insulin tolerance test (ITT). Recently, it was shown that low doses of ACTH, such as 1 microg i.v., induce a maximal adrenal response and, by reducing the discrepancies compared with the ITT also allow one to detect mild forms of secondary hypoadrenalism. In the present study the 1 microg ACTH test was performed in patients with hypothalamic-pituitary disease in order to assess adrenal function, and the results have been compared with those obtained after the insulin test. Fifty-seven patients (31 men and 26 women, aged 19-73 years) with hypothalamic-pituitary diseases were studied: 51 patients were affected with pituitary tumor and 6 patients had hypothalamic disorders. All these patients and 18 healthy volunteers (7 men and 11 women, aged 19-46 years) received 1 microg i.v. ACTH injection. In addition, the ITT (0.1-0.15 U/kg body weight) was performed in all patients. In normal subjects mean cortisol levels significantly (P<0.001) increased from a baseline of 393+/-43 nmol/l to a peak of 770+/-41 nmol/l after 1 microg ACTH. In 44 patients with hypothalamic-pituitary disease 1 microg ACTH caused a cortisol rise similar to that of normal subjects (from 332+/-17 to 769+/-24 nmol/l; P<0.001), while an impaired response (from 124+/-23 to 312+/-46 nmol/l) was observed in 13 cases (23%), 7 of them with low morning cortisol levels (10-127 nmol/l) and 6 with basal values at the lower limit of normality. The cortisol response to ITT was compared with that obtained after the 1 microg ACTH test: 10 patients failed both challenges, 4 patients who passed the ACTH test failed the ITT, while 3 patients who failed the ACTH test passed the ITT. The 23 out of 57 patients (40%) who showed a cortisol peak greater than 750 nmol/l after 1 microg ACTH had a normal response to ITT. A positive correlation between cortisol peaks after ACTH and after insulin was also found (r = 0.68, P<0.001). Assuming a 100% accuracy of ITT, the low dose ACTH test yielded a 71% sensitivity and a 93% specificity. In conclusion, the low-dose ACTH test is a useful, safe and inexpensive tool for the initial assessment of HPA function in patients with hypothalamic-pituitary disease. In fact, the ITT is unnecessary when cortisol peaks are greater than 750 nmol/l after 1 microg ACTH and also when very low cortisol basal levels indicate an overt hypoadrenalism. Within these limits the ITT is mandatory and its important role in the recognition of secondary adrenal failure is further confirmed.

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A Sartorio, A Conti, S Ferrero, S Giambona, T Re, E Passini and B Ambrosi

Although steroid-induced negative effects on bone and collagen have been well described in corticosteroid-treated patients, few studies have extensively evaluated bone and collagen turnover in patients with endogenous Cushing's syndrome. In this work serum bone-Gla protein (BGP), C-terminal cross-linked telopeptide of type I collagen (ICTP) and N-terminal propeptide of type III procollagen (PIIINP) levels were determined in patients with active (n = 12) and preclinical (n = 6) Cushing's syndrome, adrenal incidentalomas (n = 35) and in healthy controls (n = 28). In patients with overt Cushing's syndrome, serum BGP (0.9+/-0.2 ng/ml), ICTP (2.7+/-0.2 ng/ml) and PIIINP (1.9+/-0.2 ng/ml) levels were significantly lower (P < 0.0001) than in controls (5.5+/-0.2, 3.9+/-0.2 and 3.2+/-0.2 ng/ml respectively). In preclinical Cushing's syndrome, serum BGP (2.5+/-0.8 ng/ml), ICTP (2.2+/-0.1 ng/ml) and PIIINP (2.2+/-0.2 ng/ml) levels were significantly lower than in normal subjects (P < 0.0001, P < 0.0001 and P < 0.02 respectively), being similar to those recorded in overt Cushing's syndrome. In patients with adrenal incidentaloma, serum BGP (4.2+/-0.5 ng/ml) and ICTP (2.9+/-0.2 ng/ml) levels were significantly lower than those found in controls (P < 0.05 and P < 0.001 respectively), while serum PIIINP levels (3.6+/-0.2 ng/ml) did not differ from those of normals. In particular, 9/35 patients with adrenal incidentaloma had markedly depressed BGP levels (<2.0 ng/ml; mean 0.8+/-0.1 ng/ml): all patients of this subgroup showed an exaggerated 17-hydroxyprogesterone increase after ACTH administration. In the same patients, serum ICTP (3.0+/-0.4 ng/ml) and PIIINP (3.6+/-0.2 ng/ml) levels did not differ from those found in the incidentaloma group. In conclusion, our study indicates that bone and collagen turnover are markedly affected in patients with overt and preclinical Cushing's syndrome. Although patients with adrenal incidentaloma do not show any signs or symptoms of overt hypercortisolism, the presence of reduced BGP and ICTP levels might be considered a further index of an 'abnormal' pattern of steroid secretion in some of them. As a consequence, the presence of early alterations in markers of bone turnover might be useful for selecting those patients who need more accurate follow-up of the adrenal mass.

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P Colombo, C Dall'Asta, L Barbetta, T Re, E Passini, G Faglia and B Ambrosi

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the plasma ACTH and serum cortisol responses to desmopressin in patients with Cushing's disease either before or after pituitary adenomectomy during long-term follow-up, and to compare the results with those obtained after corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) testing. DESIGN: Plasma ACTH and serum cortisol concentrations were evaluated after the administration of desmopressin (10 microg i.v.) or CRH (1 microg/kg i. v.) in 34 patients with Cushing's disease. Twenty-four patients with active Cushing's disease were evaluated both before and after transsphenoidal pituitary surgery (TSS); these patients were followed up for 1-36 months. Ten patients were studied only after a long-term period (1-19 years, median 4 years) after TSS (six patients), TSS plus external pituitary irradiation (three patients) and TSS plus radiosurgery (one patient). RESULTS: In 24 patients with active Cushing's disease a significant ACTH/cortisol response (P<0.001) was induced by either desmopressin (ACTH from a baseline of 15.3+/-2.7 pmol/l to a peak of 40.9+/-7.3 pmol/l; cortisol from 673+/-59 nmol/l to 1171+/-90 nmol/l) or CRH (ACTH from a basal of 14. 2+/-2.5 pmol/l to a peak of 47.2+/-7.7 pmol/l; cortisol from 672+/-50 nmol/l to 1192+/- 80 nmol/l). In all patients a positive cortisol response to desmopressin was found. After pituitary adenomectomy the 14 'cured' patients were followed up for 1-36 months; desmopressin administration never induced ACTH or cortisol responsiveness in any patient. In contrast, a progressive recovery of ACTH and cortisol responses after CRH was observed at different intervals of time in all patients but one. Five patients, in whom the cortisol concentration only normalized after surgery, showed a persistent responsiveness to desmopressin, and two of them relapsed 12 and 24 months later. In five patients who were not cured, the hormonal responsiveness to either CRH or desmopressin was similar before and after operation. Of 10 patients studied only after long-term follow-up, six were cured and a normal response to CRH was present, whereas no changes in ACTH/cortisol concentrations were induced by desmopressin. The other four unsuccessfully operated patients underwent pituitary irradiation and showed different and equivocal hormonal responses to desmopressin and to CRH. CONCLUSIONS: During the postoperative follow-up of patients with Cushing's disease, the maintenance or the disappearance of the hormonal response may be related to the persistence or the complete removal of adenomatous corticotrophs, respectively. It is suggested that desmopressin test should be performed in the preoperative evaluation and follow-up of patients with ACTH-dependent Cushing's syndrome.