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L Barzon, F Fallo, N Sonino and M Boscaro

OBJECTIVE: The natural course of adrenal incidentalomas, especially those with subclinical autonomous glucocorticoid production, i.e. subclinical Cushing's syndrome, and the risk that such conditions will evolve towards overt Cushing's syndrome are unknown. DESIGN: Longitudinal follow-up evaluation of a series of 284 consecutive patients with adrenal incidentaloma. METHODS AND RESULTS: Out of 284 consecutive patients with adrenal incidentaloma studied at our Institution in the last 15 years, 98 patients (23 with subclinical hypercortisolism) underwent surgery. Of 130 non-operated patients with a follow-up of at least 1 year, eight had subclinical hypercortisolism at diagnosis. We describe in detail four patients who developed overt Cushing's syndrome after 1-3 years of follow-up. Only one of these patients had subclinical hypercortisolism at first diagnosis. Estimated cumulative risk for a non-secreting adrenal incidentaloma to develop subclinical hyperfunction was 3.8% after 1 year and 6.6% after 5 years. For patients with masses with subclinical autonomous glucocorticoid overproduction, estimated cumulative risk to develop overt Cushing's syndrome was 12.5% after 1 year. CONCLUSIONS: In patients with adrenal incidentalomas the risk of progression towards overt Cushing's syndrome is not low, at variance with previous reports. A careful biochemical and hormonal follow-up is advisable in all patients who do not need surgery at first presentation.

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L Barzon, N Sonino, F Fallo, G Palu and M Boscaro

Clinically silent adrenal masses discovered by imaging studies performed for unrelated reasons, i.e. adrenal incidentalomas, have become a rather common finding in clinical practice. However, only limited studies of incidence, prevalence, and natural history of adrenal incidentalomas are available. A comprehensive review of the literature shows the prevalence of adrenal incidentalomas to be 2.3% at autopsy and 0.5-2% at abdominal computed tomography scan. Most lesions are adrenocortical adenomas at histology, whereas the prevalence of adrenocortical carcinomas is relatively low. The risk of malignancy over time for masses defined as benign at diagnosis is estimated at about 1/1000, even though 5-25% of masses increase in size during follow-up. Hyperfunction develops in about 1.7% of cases and the risk is higher in patients with lesions larger than 3 cm. Cortisol hypersecretion is the most likely disorder that may ensue, and it remains subclinical in about two-thirds of cases. The lack of controlled studies precludes making specific management recommendations. Large perspective controlled studies to define the epidemiology, natural history, and possible associated morbidity of adrenal incidentalomas and their impact on the quality of life of patients are needed.

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L Barzon, P Zucchetta, M Boscaro, MC Marzola, F Bui and F Fallo

OBJECTIVE: Adrenocortical scintigraphy has demonstrated clinical utility in the morpho-functional characterization of adrenal tumors. The aim of this study was to identify possible relationships between the scintigraphic pattern and endocrine and/or morphological data in a series of adrenocortical carcinomas. DESIGN AND METHODS: Twenty-one patients with adrenocortical carcinoma (11 nonfunctioning and 10 hormone-secreting) were investigated with 75Se-methyl-nor-cholesterol scintigraphy. Clinical, hormonal, radiological, and pathological data were analyzed. RESULTS: The adrenal mass showed no radiocholesterol uptake in 18 cases (11 nonfunctioning and 7 functioning lesions). Contralateral normal adrenal gland was visualized in all patients with nonfunctioning tumors, whereas classic bilateral nonvisualization was observed in the 7 cases with hyperfunctioning masses. Three patients with cortisol-producing carcinomas showed radiotracer uptake by the mass, without visualization of the contralateral gland. At histology, the tumors were shown to be undifferentiated adrenocortical carcinomas; they had an aggressive clinical behavior. CONCLUSIONS: Radiocholesterol scintigraphy has an important role in diagnosing adrenocortical carcinomas, which typically are not visualized. However, 30% of hypersecreting adrenocortical carcinomas show an atypical increased tracer uptake, not predictive of the biochemical and histological features of the tumor.

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F Fallo, V Pezzi, L Barzon, P Mulatero, F Veglio, N Sonino and JM Mathis

BACKGROUND: The presence and pathophysiological role of CYP11B1 (11beta-hydroxylase) gene in the zona glomerulosa of human adrenal cortex is still controversial. METHODS: In order to specifically quantify CYP11B1, CYP11B2 (aldosterone synthase) and CYP17(17alpha-hydroxylase) mRNA levels, we developed a real-time RT-PCR assay and examined the expression in a series of adrenal tIssues, including six normal adrenals from patients adrenalectomized for renal cancer and twelve aldosterone-producing adenomas (APA) from patients with primary aldosteronism. RESULTS: CYP11B1 mRNA levels were clearly detected in normal adrenals, which comprised both zona glomerulosa and fasciculata/reticularis cells, but were also measured at a lower range (P<0.05) in APA. The levels of CYP11B2 mRNA were lower (P<0.005) in normal adrenals than in APA. CYP17 mRNAlevels were similar in normal adrenals and in APA. In patients with APA, CYP11B2 and CYP11B1 mRNA levels were not correlated either with basal aldosterone or with the change from basal aldosterone in response to posture or to dexamethasone. No correlation between CYP11B1 mRNA or CYP11B2 mRNA and the percentage of zona fasciculata-like cells was observed in APA. CONCLUSIONS: Real-time RT-PCR can be reliably used to quantify CYP11B1 and CYP11B2 mRNA levels in adrenal tIssues. Expression of CYP11B1 in hyperfunctioning zona glomerulosa suggests an additional formation of corticosterone via 11beta-hydroxylase, providing further substrate for aldosterone biosynthesis. CYP11B1 and CYP11B2 mRNA levels in APA are not related to the in vivo secretory activity of glomerulosa cells, where post-transcriptional factors might ultimately regulate aldosterone production.

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P Mulatero, N Glorioso, F Fallo, A Soro, S Morra di Cella, R Carra, F Filigheddu and F Veglio

OBJECTIVE: 11beta-Hydroxylase and aldosterone synthase are two highly homologous genes involved in different forms of human hypertension and in different animal models of hypertension. It has been shown that the conservative substitution D147E in the human CYP11B2 gene results in an increased production of corticosterone and aldosterone in vitro. A gene conversion between the CYP11B1 and CYP11B2 genes could be responsible for such a substitution. METHODS: In this study we investigated the presence of the mutation D147E of CYP11B2 in a group of 128 patients with primary aldosteronism, 68 patients with essential hypertension and increased corticosterone production and in 48 normal volunteers. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: We did not identify any patient carrying this mutation, indicating that if it exists it is very rare and so has no relevance in determining the increased steroid excretion seen in some subtypes of human hypertension.

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F Fallo, A Scarda, N Sonino, A Paoletta, M Boscaro, C Pagano, G Federspil and R Vettor

OBJECTIVE: Glucocorticoids were found to inhibit adiponectin gene expression and secretion both in vitro and in animal models. We evaluated first the acute effect of i.v. glucocorticoids on adiponectin in normal subjects and secondly plasma adiponectin levels in a series of patients with Cushing's syndrome compared with controls. DESIGN AND METHODS: Hydrocortisone (25 mg) was administered i.v. to five healthy volunteers, with blood samples taken at -15, 0, 30, 60, 120 and 180 min. Twenty-one patients with Cushing's syndrome were divided in two groups: one with 11 obese and the other with 10 non-obese Cushing's patients. Each group was compared with controls that were matched for sex, age, body mass index, waist circumference, glucose, insulin, lipid levels and blood pressure. RESULTS: In normal subjects, hydrocortisone produced a decrease in adiponectin at 30 and 60 min, compared with placebo (P<0.05). Adiponectin was lower in non-obese Cushing's patients than in non-obese controls (P<0.004). In contrast, there was no difference in adiponectin levels in obese Cushing's patients and in obese controls. Adiponectin was inversely correlated (P<0.05) with homeostasis model assessment index in both obese and non-obese Cushing's patients; in non-obese Cushing's patients only, adiponectin was inversely correlated with urinary cortisol (P<0.05). CONCLUSIONS: Glucocorticoids inhibit adiponectin in man, as shown by both exogenous administration to healthy subjects and endogenous cortisol hyperproduction. Similar levels of adiponectin in obese Cushing's patients and their obese controls indicate that obesity per se may act as a predominant factor in masking the relationship between adiponectin and cortisol.

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L Barzon, G Masi, K Fincati, M Pacenti, V Pezzi, G Altavilla, F Fallo and G Palù

Objective: Adrenocortical tumors may originate from the zona glomerulosa, zona fasciculata, or zona reticularis and be associated with syndromes due to overproduction of mineralocorticoids, glucocorticoids, or androgens respectively. We report an unusual case of recurrent adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC), which seems to contradict the paradigm of functional adrenal zonation.

Case report: A male patient presented with severe primary aldosteronism due to an ACC, which relapsed after adrenalectomy and adjuvant mitotane therapy. After removal of the tumor recurrence and eight cycles of chemotherapy with etoposide, doxorubicin and cisplatin, the patient presented again with ACC masses, but in association with overt Cushing’s syndrome and normal aldosterone levels.

Methods and results: Extensive pathologic examination showed that this shift in steroid hormone production was paralleled by an attenuation of tumor cell atypia and polymorphism, whereas gene expression profile analysis demonstrated a change in expression of adrenal steroidogenic enzymes. Moreover, cancer progression was associated with overexpression of the inhibin-α subunit, which could have contributed to the phenotypic changes.

Conclusions: This case of recurrent ACC demonstrates that adrenocortical cells can reverse their differentiation program during neoplastic progression and change their specific hormone synthesis, as a consequence of modifications in the expression profile of steroidogenic enzymes and cofactors. We hypothesize that this shift in steroid hormone secretion is a consequence of chromosome amplification induced by chemotherapy. These findings, besides opening new perspectives to study adrenocortical cell plasticity and potential, demonstrate how conventional clinical and pathologic evaluation can be combined with genomic analysis in order to dissect thoroughly the biology of cancer.

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F Fallo, C Betterle, S Budano, M Lupia, M Boscaro and N Sonino

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate by echocardiography the cardiac structure and function in patients with primary adrenocortical insufficiency. DESIGN AND METHODS: Two-dimensionally guided M-mode echocardiograms and spectral Doppler studies were performed in seven consecutive patients with newly diagnosed autoimmune primary adrenal failure before and 4-8 months after an adequate regimen of steroid substitution. Echocardiographic parameters were also studied in ten healthy controls. RESULTS: In the cases with untreated Addison's disease, both left ventricular end-systolic and end-diastolic dimensions were significantly reduced in comparison with those in controls (P<0.01). Four patients had echocardiographic signs of mitral valve prolapse (MVP) at the anterior leaflet, with no evidence of mitral regurgitation by Doppler echocardiography. Systolic clicks characteristic of MVP were present on auscultation in two of these cases. Left ventricular chamber size normalized, i.e. significantly increased (P<0.01), and both echocardiographic and physical signs of MVP resolved after steroid substitution in all patients. All other echocardiographic indices were normal before and after treatment. CONCLUSIONS: Patients with untreated Addison's disease have cardiac abnormalities which regress after steroid substitution. A valvular-ventricular disproportion due to the hypovolemic state could explain these findings.