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F Beuschlein, M Fassnacht, A Klink, B Allolio and M Reincke

The regulation of the ACTH-receptor gene is unique in that it is up-regulated by its own ligand, ACTH. Ligand-induced up-regulation of ACTH-receptor expression may be an important adaptive process directed towards optimizing adrenal responsiveness to ACTH in the context of physiological stress and the maintenance of metabolic homeostasis in which the adrenals play a pivotal role. Whereas enhancement by ligand-induced up-regulation permits a more efficient and rapid glucocorticoid response, negative feedback regulation of glucocorticoids in the hypothalamus and pituitary inhibits ACTH secretion and allows a balanced adrenal response to stress. Since the cloning of the promoter region of the ACTH receptor, considerable progress in the understanding of the regulatory processes has been made. The effects of ACTH on ACTH-receptor expression is dependent on cAMP, probably mediated through AP-1.The profound effect of three SF-1-binding sites in the ACTH-receptor promoter was demonstrated by deletion experiments. Conversely, ACTH-receptor expression can be suppressed by adrenal-specific transcription factors,like DAX-1.Despite an extensive search, no activating ACTH-receptor mutations have been found in adrenal tumors,excluding the ACTH receptor as a relevant oncogene in adrenal tumorigenesis. However, the ACTH receptor may act as a differentiation factor as suggested by LOH in adrenal carcinomas with an undifferentiated tumor type.In benign adrenal tumors, a strong correlation between ACTH-receptor expression and expression of P450 steroidogenic enzymes is evident. This close regulative relationship is lost in adrenal carcinoma, probably as a result of tumor dedifferentiation. Down-regulation of ACTH-receptor expression in normal and neoplastic tissue can be achieved by adrenostatic compounds such as aminoglutethimide and metyrapone.

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O Zwermann, Y Suttmann, M Bidlingmaier, F Beuschlein and M Reincke

Objective

The investigation of expression and functional relevance of G-protein coupled receptors in primary aldosteronism (PA) by molecular and clinical studies.

Patients and methods

Tissues of 14 aldosterone-producing adenomas (APA), of one unilateral adrenal hyperplasia and of six healthy adult adrenal glands; 12 patients with confirmed PA due to APA; (n=5), idiopathic hyperaldosteronism (n=7) and 8 control subjects (C). The tissues were subjected to a quantitative PCR for determination of mRNA expression levels of AT2R1, GIPR, MC2R, GnRHR, LHR, TRHR, TSHR, glucagon-R, V1aR, V2R, and 5-HT4R. The patients and controls were enrolled in a test protocol consisting of stimulation by posture, mixed meal, ACTH, GnRH, TRH, glucagon, vasopressin, and metoclopramide (MCP). Three patients could be analyzed by both studies. A positive response was defined as an aldosterone increase of more than 50% following stimulation.

Results

All the tissues revealed AT2R1, MC2R, AVPR, and 5-HT4R mRNA expression. LHR mRNA was found in normal adrenals and 13 adrenal tumors. By contrast with normal adrenals tumorous adrenal tissue expressed GnRHR mRNA (4/15) and TSHR mRNA (1/15). Both the patients and controls responded to posture, ACTH, glucagon, AVP, and MCP. Specific responses were seen in one patient following TRH and three patients following GnRH stimulation.

Conclusions

We provide evidence for peptide hormone responsiveness to various peptide hormones in patients with PA, including GnRH and TRH. A good correlation between clinical and molecular testing could be observed, making an involvement of the receptor expressed in PA possible.

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K Borm, M Slawik, F Beuschlein, L Seiler, F Flohr, A Berg, A Koenig and M Reincke

Objective: The insulin tolerance test (ITT) is regarded as the gold standard for the evaluation of pituitary ACTH and growth hormone reserve. However, the intended critical hypoglycemia results in considerable discomfort and requires close surveillance during the test.

Design and methods: In a pilot study, we evaluated whether the ITT could be markedly simplified, made less hazardous and more convenient by routine i.v. low-dose glucose administration after hypoglycemia has been achieved. Sixteen healthy subjects (three females, 13 males) were tested twice in a randomized, single-blinded fashion, receiving 0.15 IU insulin/kg body weight as an i.v. bolus. After hypoglycemia (serum glucose less than 2.2 mmol/l) had been achieved, 500 ml isotonic saline (protocol A (A)), or 500 ml 5% glucose solution (protocol B (B)) were infused over 30 min.

Results: Compared with saline, glucose infusion shortened the period of hypoglycemia from 31 + 14 to 17 + 6 min (P < 0.01). In addition, prolonged duration of hypoglycemia (>45 min) was reduced (6 subjects in protocol A vs none in protocol B). Despite shorter duration of hypoglycemia, all subjects had adequate stimulated cortisol (>500 nmol/l) and hGH (>5 μg/l) levels. Mean peak concentrations of plasma ACTH (24 ± 12 pmol/l (A) vs 21 ± 8 pmol/l (B)), serum cortisol (690 ± 83 nmol/l vs 634 ± 83 nmol/l) and serum hGH (26 ± 16 μg/l vs 22 ± 13 μg/l) were slightly, but not significantly lower. In contrast, glucose infusion significantly reduced peak plasma epinephrine levels at 45 min (4.96 ± 4.91 pmol/l (A) vs 1.53 ± 1.1 pmol/l (B), P < 0.05) and ameliorated discomfort, as evaluated by a visual analog scale (P < 0.05).

Conclusions: Taken together, our pilot study suggests that, while the duration of hypoglycemia is shortened and acute epinephrine response is reduced, low-dose infusion of glucose does not significantly alter peak cortisol and growth hormone responses during ITT. Studies with a larger number of subjects and patients with suspected hypopituitarism are needed to further evaluate this modified protocol.

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O Zwermann, F Beuschlein, P Mora, G Weber, B Allolio and M Reincke

Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) is an autosomal dominant disorder with neoplasia of the anterior pituitary, the parathyroid, the endocrine pancreas and other endocrine tissues including the adrenal cortex. The tumor-suppressor gene causing this disease was identified at the gene locus 11q13. We recently reported that adrenocortical carcinomas frequently show loss of heterozygosity (LOH) of 11q13, but do not contain point mutations within the MEN1-coding region. To investigate whether reduced gene expression (for example by mutations within the MEN1 promoter) may contribute to the tumorigenesis of sporadic adrenocortical tumors, 24 adrenocortical specimen were studied by Northern blot analysis. This series included six adrenocortical carcinomas, four cortisol-producing adenomas, six aldosterone-producing adenomas, three endocrine-inactive adenomas and six normal adrenal glands. The presence of LOH of 11q13 was investigated using five polymorphic microsatellite markers (D11S956, PYGM, D11S4939, D11S4946 and D11S987) close to the MEN1 gene. Poly-A mRNA was hybridized with a PCR-generated cDNA probe of the MEN1 gene, a cDNA of the former MEN1 candidate gene phospholipase (PLC) beta3 and a mouse beta-actin cDNA for normalization. LOH of 11q13 was detected in five out of six carcinomas and two inactive adenomas, but in none of the hormone-producing adenomas. Compared with normal adrenals (100+/-6. 5%, mean+/-s.e.m.) MEN1 mRNA in adrenocortical tumors was expressed in similar amounts (carcinomas 109+/-11%, cortisol-producing adenomas 131+/-10%, aldosterone-producing adenomas 113+/-13%, endocrine-inactive adenomas 111+/-2%) with the exception of one adrenocortical carcinoma with low MEN1 mRNA expression (66%). PLCbeta3 mRNA expression showed a variable pattern without reaching significant differences between the groups. We conclude that since mRNA levels were unaltered in the majority of tumors, mutations of the MEN1 gene causing altered gene transcription is unlikely to be a major pathogenic factor of sporadic adrenocortical tumors.

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C Wachenfeld, F Beuschlein, O Zwermann, P Mora, M Fassnacht, B Allolio and M Reincke

OBJECTIVE: Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) is a rare neoplasm with poor prognosis. Discerning ACCs from benign adenomas histologically may be difficult if invasion into surrounding tissues or metastases are missing. DESIGN: In order to establish molecular markers for malignancy, we analyzed seven normal adrenals, three massive macronodular ACTH-independent adrenocortical hyperplasias (MMAHs), 30 adrenocortical adenomas (ACAs) and ten ACCs. METHODS: All tissues were studied for the presence of alterations in the p53 tumor suppressor gene using the PAb 1801 antibody, which detects mutant p53 protein and the pYNZ22 microsatellite marker to show loss of heterozygosity (LOH) at 17p, for expression of the proliferation-associated antigen Ki67 using the MIB1 antibody, for the rate of apoptotic tumor cells with the TdT-mediated dUTP biotin nick end labeling (TUNEL) method, and for LOH of 11q13 (menin gene locus) with the D11S956 microsatellite marker. RESULTS: 0/3 MMAH, 1/28 ACA and 3/10 ACC revealed immunopositive staining for p53. LOH for pYNZ22 was observed in 1/3 MMAH, 1/23 informative ACA and 6/6 informative ACC. The rate of apoptotic cells was significantly higher in ACC (P<0.0001 by ANOVA) than in ACA but there was some overlap between groups. The Ki67 index (% immunopositive cells) was 1.9+/-1.30% (mean+/-s.d.) in normal adrenals, 3.47+/-1.37% in MMAH, and 2.11+/-1.01% in ACA. ACC had the highest Ki67 index of 11.94+/-7.58% distinguishing all ACC from the ACA and MMAH studied with a cut-off level of 5%. LOH for 11q13 was detected in 2/3 MMAH, 5/26 ACA and 6/8 ACC. CONCLUSIONS: We conclude that a Ki67 index above 5% is a sensitive and specific indicator of ACC and may be useful in the differentiation of adenomas from carcinomas.

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S Zenkert, B Schubert, M Fassnacht, F Beuschlein, B Allolio and M Reincke

The rate limiting step in steroidogenesis is cholesterol transport through the outer to the inner mitochondrial membrane and the cytochrome P450 side chain cleavage (P450scc) complex. The protein factor responsible for this transport, and as such necessary for regulating the acute production of steroids, has been identified and named the steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (StAR). We investigated the expression of StAR in functional and non-functional adrenal neoplasms and compared the expression with that of P450scc. Poly A RNA was extracted from normal adrenal glands (NAG, n=5), aldosterone producing adenomas (APA, n=4), cortisol producing adenomas (CPA, n=5), adrenocortical carcinomas (ACC, n=6) and non-functional adenomas (NFA, n=3), electrophoresed through a 1% agarose gel, blotted and hybridised with a PCR-generated cDNA labelled with [(32)P]CTP. The blots were stripped and re-hybridised with a P450scc cDNA and a mouse beta-actin probe. Compared with P450scc, StAR mRNA expression showed little variability in the magnitude of expression and did not correlate with the endocrine profiles (NAG: StAR 100+/-16%, P450scc 100+/-14%; APA: StAR 80+/-3%, P450scc 94+/-13%; CPA: StAR 71+/-10%, P450scc 109+/-15%; NFA: StAR 64+/-9.5%, P450scc 18+/-5%; means+/-s.e.m.). ACC expressed low levels of both genes probably as a result of dedifferentiation (StAR 29+/-9%, P450scc 46+/-18%). Incubation of the NCI-h295 tumour cell line with 10nmol ACTH and 10micromol forskolin induced an increase in the abundance of StAR and P450scc mRNA, demonstrating gene regulation by the cAMP protein kinase A pathway. Furthermore, we incubated the NCI-h295 tumour cell line with the adrenostatic compounds, aminoglutethimide and metyrapone. We could not detect an effect on the expression of StAR mRNA, whereas the expression of P450scc mRNA was significantly reduced. We conclude that, in contrast to P450scc, StAR seems to be evenly expressed in adrenocortical adenomas. Therefore, the endocrine activity of a given tumour cannot be explained by the abundance of StAR expression. In ACC, both StAR and P450scc expression is low, explaining the relatively inefficient steroid production of these tumours.

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L Seiler, LC Rump, J Schulte-Monting, M Slawik, K Borm, H Pavenstadt, F Beuschlein and M Reincke

OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study was to investigate the utility of different screening techniques for primary aldosteronism (PA), including serum aldosterone (SA), plasma renin activity (PRA) and the SA/PRA ratio in hypertensive patients of a tertiary-care centre. Furthermore, the influence of antihypertensive medication on SA and the SA/PRA ratio were studied. DESIGN: Clinical records of 425 hypertensive patients who had SA and PRA measurements over a 27-month period were analysed retrospectively. Eighty patients were excluded from further analysis because of incomplete data. The remaining 345 patients were classified into the following groups: patients with essential hypertension (EH) (n=260, 75.4%), patients with PA (n=49, 14.2%) and patients with secondary hypertension other than PA (n=36, 10.4%). Diagnosis of PA was made in accordance with established laboratory criteria (including measurements of SA, PRA, urinary excretion of aldosterone and metabolites, imaging techniques and response to treatment). RESULTS: Although mean serum potassium values were significantly lower (P<0.001) in the PA group compared with the EH group, 61% of PA subjects were normokalaemic (3.4-5.2 mmol/l). The SA/PRA ratio alone identified 94% of the patients with PA, but was false positive in 30% of the patients with EH. The SA/PRA ratio together with SA>150 g/ml increased the diagnostic accuracy, led to the correct identification of 84% of the patients with PA, and decreased the false-positive rate to 3%. A multivariate binary logistic regression analysis based on SA and PRA was performed, which identified PA with 90% sensitivity and 91% accuracy. The SA(2)/PRA or the SA(3)/PRA ratio was found useful for simplification of the regression analysis. Antihypertensive medication influenced SA, PRA and the SA/PRA ratio only in EH patients. In EH patients taking beta-adrenoceptor antagonists PRA tended to be lower, leading to a significantly higher SA/PRA ratio and therefore increasing the false-negative rate. CONCLUSION: To reduce false-positive results in screening for PA, and thereby avoid unnecessary and cost-intensive diagnostic procedures, SA should be taken into account in addition to the SA/PRA ratio as a second screening criterion. Alternatively, the SA(2)/PRA or the SA(3)/PRA ratio is more accurate screening tests than the SA/PRA ratio. Beta-blockers should be avoided whilst screening for PA.

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A Hannemann, M Bidlingmaier, N Friedrich, J Manolopoulou, A Spyroglou, H Völzke, F Beuschlein, J Seissler, R Rettig, S B Felix, R Biffar, A Döring, C Meisinger, A Peters, H E Wichmann, M Nauck, H Wallaschofski and M Reincke

Objective

The prevalence of primary aldosteronism in unselected hypertensive patients is currently unknown. We investigated the frequency of positive screening results for primary aldosteronism based on the aldosterone-to-renin ratio (ARR) in hypertensive subjects aged 30–79 years from two German epidemiological studies. We further examined the frequency of positive screening results in subjects with resistant hypertension or stage III hypertension and assessed possible disparities between untreated and treated hypertensive subjects.

Methods

Data were obtained from the first follow-ups of the population-based Study of Health in Pomerania (SHIP; n=1392) and the Cooperative Health Research in the Region of Augsburg (KORA; n=1052). Study-specific reference ranges for plasma aldosterone concentration (PAC), plasma renin concentration (PRC) and the ARR were applied. Confirmation tests for primary aldosteronism were not performed in these epidemiological studies. Three definitions for a positive screening for primary aldosteronism were applied: A) increased ARR; B) increased ARR and decreased PRC; and C) increased ARR and increased PAC and decreased PRC.

Results

The frequency of positive screening results was 7.0, 3.8 and 0.2% according to definitions A–C respectively. In the subgroups of subjects with resistant hypertension (11.9, 5.5 and 0.9%) or stage III hypertension (18.3, 14.0 and 1.1%), these frequencies were markedly higher than those in the general hypertensive population. There was no difference in the frequency of positive screening results between the treated and untreated hypertensive subjects.

Conclusions

A maximum of 7.0% of the hypertensive population in Germany shows a positive screening result for primary aldosteronism. Thus, primary aldosteronism may be less frequent than previously expected based on data from referred hypertensive patients.

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L Oudijk, C M Neuhofer, U D Lichtenauer, T G Papathomas, E Korpershoek, H Stoop, J W Oosterhuis, M Smid, D F Restuccia, M Robledo, A A de Cubas, M Mannelli, A P Gimenez-Roqueplo, W N M Dinjens, F Beuschlein and R R de Krijger

Objective

Pheochromocytomas (PCCs) are neuroendocrine tumors that occur in the adrenal medulla, whereas paragangliomas (PGLs) arise from paraganglia in the head, neck, thorax, or abdomen. In a variety of tumors, cancer cells with stem cell-like properties seem to form the basis of tumor initiation because of their ability to self-renew and proliferate. Specifically targeting this small cell population may lay the foundation for more effective therapeutic approaches. In the present study, we intended to identify stem cells in PCCs/PGLs.

Design

We examined the immunohistochemical expression of 11 stem cell markers (SOX2, LIN28, NGFR, THY1, PREF1, SOX17, NESTIN, CD117, OCT3/4, NANOG, and CD133) on tissue microarrays containing 208 PCCs/PGLs with different genetic backgrounds from five European centers.

Results

SOX2, LIN28, NGFR, and THY1 were expressed in more than 10% of tumors, and PREF1, SOX17, NESTIN, and CD117 were expressed in <10% of the samples. OCT3/4, NANOG, and CD133 were not detectable at all. Double staining for chromogranin A/SOX2 and S100/SOX2 demonstrated SOX2 immunopositivity in both tumor and adjacent sustentacular cells. The expression of SOX2, SOX17, NGFR, LIN28, PREF1, and THY1 was significantly associated with mutations in one of the succinate dehydrogenase (SDH) genes. In addition, NGFR expression was significantly correlated with metastatic disease.

Conclusion

Immunohistochemical expression of stem cell markers was found in a subset of PCCs/PGLs. Further studies are required to validate whether some stem cell-associated markers, such as SOX2, could serve as targets for therapeutic approaches and whether NGFR expression could be utilized as a predictor of malignancy.