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Adrenal enlargement and failure of suppression of circulating cortisol by dexamethasone in patients with malignancy

British Journal of Cancer
Nature Publishing Group
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6690603
  • Regular Article
  • Medicine


The aim of this study was to further elucidate the activity of the hypothalamo–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis in patients with malignancy and to correlate this with the size of the adrenal glands. Fourteen patients with a variety of malignancies were studied prior to receiving cytotoxic chemotherapy. During routine staging computerized tomographic (CT) scans, the size of the body, medial and lateral limbs of the adrenal glands were measured and compared with those of a normal group of patients studied previously. Measurements of 09:00 h serum cortisol and plasma adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) levels were made before and after the administration of dexamethasone (0.5 mg 6-hourly for 48 h) in addition to the peak cortisol response to i.v corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH). Overall, patients with malignancy had significantly larger adrenal glands than patients without malignancy; those with non-haematological malignancies had larger glands than patients with haematological malignancies. Following dexamethasone to suppress circulating cortisol levels, nine patients (64%) demonstrated abnormal resistance with cortisol levels > 50 nmol l−1: mean value 294 nmol l−1 (range 67–1147). Those patients who failed to suppress after dexamethasone had significantly larger adrenal glands than those that did suppress and tended to have non-haematological malignancies. ACTH levels were undetectable or low in three patients in whom it was measured and who did not suppress with dexamethasone. Following CRH, the cortisol levels were highest (823 and 853 nmol l−1) in two of these patients. Malignancy is associated with diffuse enlargement of the adrenal glands and resistance to dexamethasone-induced suppression of the HPA axis, which is not due to ectopic ACTH secretion. This disturbance of the normal control of the HPA axis is unexplained and its functional significance remains uncertain. © 1999 Cancer Research Campaign

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