Elevated levels of adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) precursors in post-adrenalectomy Cushing's disease and their regulation by glucocorticoids.
Ray DW., Gibson S., Crosby SR., Davies D., Davis JR., White A.
The ACTH precursor pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) undergoes specific endoproteolytic cleavages in the anterior pituitary gland to give ACTH-(1-39). ACTH precursors circulate in normal subjects and are high both in the ectopic ACTH syndrome and in patients with aggressive pituitary adenomas. This study examines plasma levels of ACTH precursors and ACTH in 24 patients with post-adrenalectomy Cushing's disease, in 10 of whom computed tomography showed evidence of tumor progression. ACTH precursors were higher in post-adrenalectomy Cushing's disease (median 97.5 pmol/L, range 26-647 pmol/L) than in untreated Cushing's disease (median 29 pmol/L, range 9-104 pmol/L) and normal controls (5-40 pmol/L) (P < 0.001) and were significantly higher in patients with larger tumors (median 175 pmol/L, range 52-647 pmol/L) than in the remainder (median 41 pmol/L, range 26-510 pmol/L) (P = 0.02). Surprisingly, pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) processing to ACTH was enhanced in post-adrenalectomy patients (ratio 1 +/- 0.5) compared with Cushing's disease (5.6 +/- 0.8) and normal subjects (5.3 +/- 0.9). After hydrocortisone ACTH precursors rose in 36% of post-adrenalectomy patients (increase 15-78%) and remained within 10% of basal levels in 46%. Six patients had a rise in precursors and a fall in ACTH suggesting differential regulation of these peptides. In conclusion, whereas ACTH precursors are high in post-adrenalectomy Cushing's disease and higher levels correlate with tumor progression, processing of precursors to ACTH is enhanced.