Until I was diagnosed with metastatic Neuroendocrine Cancer, I didn’t have a clue about hormones – it’s one of those things you just take for granted. However, hormones are vital to human health (male and female) and it’s only when things go wrong you suddenly appreciate how important they are ……..like a lot of other things in life I suppose! The presence of over-secreting hormones (often called peptides throughout) is useful to aid diagnosis albeit it often means the tumours have metastasized. It’s also a frequent indication that the person has an associated NET syndrome.
This is a really complex area and to understand the hormone problems associated with Neuroendocrine Cancer, you need to have a basic knowledge of the endocrine and neuroendocrine systems. I’ve no intention of explaining that (!) – other than the following high level summary:
- Glands in the endocrine system use the bloodstream to monitor the body’s internal environment and to communicate with each other through substances called hormones, which are released into the bloodstream. Endocrine glands include; Pituitary, Hypothalmus, Thymus, Pineal, Testes, Ovaries Thyroid, Adrenal, Parathyroid, Pancreas.
- A Hormone is a chemical that is made by specialist cells, usually within an endocrine gland, and it is released into the bloodstream to send a message to another part of the body. It is often referred to as a ‘chemical messenger’. In the human body, hormones are used for two types of communication. The first is for communication between two endocrine glands, where one gland releases a hormone which stimulates another target gland to change the levels of hormones that it is releasing. The second is between an endocrine gland and a target organ, for example when the pancreas releases insulin which causes muscle and fat cells to take up glucose from the bloodstream. Hormones affect many physiological activities including growth, metabolism, appetite, puberty and fertility.
- The Endocrine system. The complex interplay between the glands, hormones and other target organs is referred to as the endocrine system.
- The Neuroendocrine System. The diffuse neuroendocrine system is made up of neuroendocrine cells scattered throughout the body. These cells receive neuronal input and, as a consequence of this input, release hormones to the blood. In this way they bring about an integration between the nervous system and the endocrine system (i.e. Neuroendocrine). A complex area but one example of what this means is the adrenal gland releasing adrenaline to the blood when the body prepares for the ‘fight or flight’ response in times of stress, ie, for vigorous and/or sudden action.
Hormones – the NET Effect
At least one or more hormones will be involved at various sites and even within certain syndromes, the dominant and offending hormone may differ between anatomical tumour sites. For example, NETs of the small intestine, lung or appendix (and one or two other places) may overproduce serotonin and other hormones which can cause a characteristic collection of symptoms currently called carcinoid syndrome. The key symptoms are flushing, diarrhea and general abdominal pain, loss of appetite, fast heart rate and shortness of breath and wheezing. The main symptom for me was facial flushing and this was instrumental in my eventual diagnosis. The fact that I was syndromic at the point of diagnosis made it easier to discover, albeit the trigger for the investigation was a fairly innocuous event. Other types of NETs are also affected by the overproduction of hormones including Insulinomas, Gastrinomas, Glucagonomas,VIPomas and Somatostatinomas and others. These can cause syndromes which are associated with each type of NET. For more on syndromes –Read Here.
So are hormones ‘horrible’ as my title indicates?
Absolutely not, they are essential to the normal function of the human body. For example if you didn’t have any of the hormone Serotonin in your system, you would become extremely ill. On the other hand, if your glands start secreting too much of certain hormones, your body could become dysfunctional and in some scenarios, this situation could become life threatening. So hormones are good as long as the balance is correct. NET patients with an oversecreting tumor may be classed as “functional”. However, many NET patients are deemed to be “non-functioning” with normal hormone levels. Regardless of their status, hormones really get a bad press in the NET Cancer community!
Location Location Location
It’s accurate to say that the type and amount of hormone secretion differs between locations or sites of the functional tumor and this can also create different effects.
For example, serotonin secreting tumors tend to be associated with carcinoid syndrome which tends to be associated with midgut NETs and this is normally the case. Many texts will also tell you that a syndrome only occurs at a metastatic stage. Both are a good rule of thumb but both are technically incorrect. For example, in the bronchus or ovary you can have a form of carcinoid syndrome without liver metastasis (tends to be described as atypical carcinoid syndrome). It’s also possible to see serotonin secreting tumors in places such as the pancreas (although what you would call that type of NET is open for debate).
For example – Foregut NETs (gastric and bronchial) lack the enzyme aromatic amino decarboxylase that converts 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan – a precursor to serotonin) to serotonin (5-HT); such tumours produce 5-HTP and histamine instead of serotonin.
For example – Hindgut NETs (transverse, descending colon and rectum) cannot convert tryptophan to serotonin and other metabolites and therefore rarely cause carcinoid syndrome even if they metastasise to the liver.
Let’s look at the key NET hormones
I used the example of Serotonin above because it is the most cited problem with NET Cancer although it does tend to be most prevalent in midgut tumors. Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter synthesized from Tryptophan, one of the eight essential amino acids (defined as those that cannot be made in the body and therefore must be obtained from food or supplements). About 90% of serotonin produced in the body is found in the enterochromaffin cells of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract where it is used mainly to regulate intestinal movements amongst other functions. The remainder is synthesized in the central nervous system where it mainly regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. Please note there is no transfer of serotonin across the blood-brain barrier.
Alterations in tryptophan metabolism may account for many symptoms that accompany carcinoid syndrome. Serotonin in particular is the most likely cause of many features of carcinoid syndrome as it stimulates intestinal motility and secretion and inhibits intestinal absorption. Serotonin may also stimulate fibroblast growth and fibrogenesis and may thus account for peritoneal and valvular fibrosis encountered in such tumours; serotonin, however, it is said not to be associated with flushing. The diversion of tryptophan to serotonin may lead to tryptophan deficiency as it becomes unavailable for nicotinic acid synthesis, and is associated with reduced protein synthesis and hypoalbuminaemia; this may lead to the development of pellagra (skin rash, glossitis, stomatitis, confusion/dementia).
Serotonin is also thought to be responsible for ‘right sided’ heart disease (Carcinoid Heart Disease). It is thought that high levels of serotonin in the blood stream damages the heart, leading to lesions which cause fibrosis, particularly of the heart valves. This generally affects the right side of the heart when liver metastases are present. The left side of the heart is usually not affected because the lungs can break down serotonin. Right sided heart failure symptoms include swelling (edema) in the extremities and enlargement of the heart.
Whilst serotonin can be measured directly in the blood, it’s said to be more accurate to measure 5HIAA (the output of serotonin) via blood or urine.
Tackykinins include Substance P, Neurokinin A, Neuropeptide K and others. They are active in the enterochromaffin cells of the GI tract but can also be found in lung, appendiceal and ovarian NETs, and also in Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma and Pheochromocytomas. They are thought to be involved in flushing and diarrhea in midgut NETs. The most common tachykinin is Substance P, which is a potent vasodilator (substances which open up blood vessels). Telangiectasias are collections of tiny blood vessels which can develop superficially on the faces of people who have had NETs for several years. They are most commonly found on the nose or upper lip and are purplish in color. They are thought to be due to chronic vasodilatation.
Histamine is a hormone that is chemically similar to the hormones serotonin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. After being made, the hormone is stored in a number of cells (e.g., mast cells, basophils, enterochromaffin cells). Normally, there is a low level of histamine circulating in the body. However (and as we all know!), the release of histamine can be triggered by an event such as an insect bite. Histamine causes the inconvenient redness, swelling and itching associated with the bite. For those with severe allergies, the sudden and more generalized release of histamine can be fatal (e.g., anaphylactic shock). Mast cell histamine has an important role in the reaction of the immune system to the presence of a compound to which the body has developed an allergy. When released from mast cells in a reaction to a material to which the immune system is allergic, the hormone causes blood vessels to increase in diameter (e.g., vasodilation) and to become more permeable to the passage of fluid across the vessel wall. These effects are apparent as a runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. Other symptoms can include itching, burning and swelling in the skin, headaches, plugged sinuses, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Histamine can also be released into the lungs, where it causes the air passages to become constricted rather than dilated. This response occurs in an attempt to keep the offending allergenic particles from being inhaled. Unfortunately, this also makes breathing difficult. An example of such an effect of histamine occurs in asthma. Histamine has also been shown to function as a neurotransmitter (a chemical that facilitates the transmission of impulses from one neural cell to an adjacent neural cell).
In cases of an extreme allergic reaction, adrenaline is administered to eliminate histamine from the body. For minor allergic reactions, symptoms can sometimes be lessened by the use of antihistamines that block the binding of histamine to a receptor molecule. Histamine is thought to be involved with certain types and locations of NET, including Lung and foregut NETs where they can cause pulmonary obstruction, atypical flush and hormone syndromes.
Histamine, another amine produced by certain NETs (particularly foregut), may be associated with an atypical flushing and pruritus; increased histamine production may account for the increased frequency of duodenal ulcers observed in these tumours.
Kallikrein is a potent vasodilator and may account for the flushing and increased intestinal mobility.
Although prostaglandins are overproduced in midgut tumours, their role in the development of the symptoms of carcinoid syndrome is not well established but triggering peristalsis is mentioned in some texts.
Bradykinin acts as a blood vessel dilator. Dilation of blood vessels can lead to a rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) and a drop in blood pressure (hypotension). Dilation of blood vessels may also be responsible for the flushing associated with carcinoid syndrome.
Calcitonin is a hormone that is produced in humans by the parafollicular cells (commonly known as C-cells) of the thyroid gland. Calcitonin is involved in helping to regulate levels of calcium and phosphate in the blood, opposing the action of parathyroid hormone. This means that it acts to reduce calcium levels in the blood. This hormone tends to involve Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma and Hyperparathyroidism in connection to those with Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia. Worth also pointing out the existence of Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide (CGRP) which is a member of the calcitonin family of peptides and a potent vasodilator.
Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ATCH) is made in the corticotroph cells of the anterior pituitary gland. It is secreted in several intermittent pulses during the day into the bloodstream and transported around the body. Like cortisol, levels of ATCH are generally high in the morning when we wake up and fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. Once ACTH reaches the adrenal glands, it binds on to receptors causing the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol, resulting in higher levels of cortisol in the blood. It also increases production of the chemical compounds that trigger an increase in other hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. If too much is released, The effects of too much ATCH are mainly due to the increase in cortisol levels which result. Higher than normal levels of ATCHe may be due to:
- Cushing’s disease – this is the most common cause of increased ATCH. It is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland (PitNET), which produces excess amounts of ATCH. (Please note, Cushing’s disease is just one of the numerous causes of Cushing’s syndrome).
- A tumour outside the pituitary gland, producing ATCH (also called ectopic ATCH). With NETs, this is normally a pNET or Lung NET.
Adrenaline and noradrenline are two separate but related hormones and neurotransmitters. They are produced in the medulla of the adrenal glands and in some neurons of the central nervous system. They are released into the bloodstream and serve as chemical mediators, and also convey the nerve impulses to various organs. Adrenaline has many different actions depending on the type of cells it is acting upon. However, the overall effect of adrenaline is to prepare the body for the ‘fight or flight’ response in times of stress, i.e. for vigorous and/or sudden action. Key actions of adrenaline include increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, expanding the air passages of the lungs, enlarging the pupil in the eye (see photo), redistributing blood to the muscles and altering the body’s metabolism, so as to maximise blood glucose levels (primarily for the brain). A closely related hormone, noradrenaline, is released mainly from the nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system (as well as in relatively small amounts from the adrenal medulla). There is a continuous low-level of activity of the sympathetic nervous system resulting in release of noradrenaline into the circulation, but adrenaline release is only increased at times of acute stress. This hormone is normally related to adrenal gland and extra adrenal NETs such as Pheochromocytoma and Paraganglioma. Like serotonin secreting tumours, adrenal secreting tumours convert the offending hormone into something which comes out in urine. In fact, this is measured (amongst other tests) by 24 hour urine test very similar to 5HIAA (with its own diet and drug restrictions). It’s known as 24-hour urinary catacholamines and metanephrines. Worth noting that adrenaline is also known as Epinephrine (one of the 5 E’s of Carcinoid Syndrome)
Gastrin is a hormone that is produced by ‘G’ cells in the lining of the stomach and upper small intestine. During a meal, gastrin stimulates the stomach to release gastric acid. This allows the stomach to break down proteins swallowed as food and absorb certain vitamins. It also acts as a disinfectant and kills most of the bacteria that enter the stomach with food, minimising the risk of infection within the gut. Gastrin also stimulates growth of the stomach lining and increases the muscle contractions of the gut to aid digestion. Excess gastrin could indicate a NET known as a Gastric NET (stomach) or a pNET known as Gastrinoma.
Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas. Here, insulin is released into the bloodstream by specialised cells called beta cells found in areas of the pancreas called islets of Langerhams. It is a hormone essential for us to live and has many effects on the whole body, mainly in controlling how the body uses carbohydrate and fat found in food. Insulin allows cells in the muscles, liver and fat (adipose tissue) to take up sugar (glucose) that has been absorbed into the bloodstream from food. This provides energy to the cells. This glucose can also be converted into fat to provide energy when glucose levels are too low. In addition, insulin has several other metabolic effects (such as stopping the breakdown of protein and fat). Excess insulin could indicate a pNET known as Insulinoma.
Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP)
VIP is a hormone that stimulates the secretion and inhibits the absorption of sodium, chloride, potassium and water within the small intestine and increases bowel motility. These actions lead to a secretory diarrhea, hypokalemia (low potassium), and dehydration. Too much Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP) causes Watery Diarrhea, Hypokalemia (potassium deficiency), and Achlorhydria (absence of hydrochloric acid in gastric secretions). The VIPoma syndrome is also commonly called Verner-Morrison syndrome, pancreatic cholera syndrome, or the WDHA syndrome. Excess VIP could indicate a pNET known as VIPoma.
Somatostatin is a hormone produced by many tissues in the body, principally in the nervous and digestive systems. It regulates a wide variety of physiological functions and inhibits the secretion of other hormones, the activity of the gastrointestinal tract and the rapid reproduction of normal and tumour cells. Somatostatin may also act as a neurotransmitter in the nervous system. Excess somatostatin could indicate a pNET known a Somatostatinoma.
Glucagon is a hormone that is involved in controlling blood sugar (glucose) levels. It is secreted into the bloodstream by the alpha cells, found in the islets of Langerhans, in the pancreas. The glucagon-secreting alpha cells surround a core of insulin-secreting beta cells, which reflects the close relationship between the two hormones. Glucagon’s role in the body is to prevent blood glucose levels dropping too low. Excess glucagon could indicate a pNET known as Glucagonoma.
Pancreatic Polypeptide (PP)
A pancreatic polypeptide is a polypeptide hormone secreted by the pancreatic polypeptide (PP) cells of the islets of Langerhans in the endocrine portion of the pancreas. Its release is triggered in humans by protein-rich meals, fasting, exercise, and acute hypoglycemia and is inhibited by somatostatin and intravenous glucose. The exact biological role of pancreatic polypeptide remains uncertain. Excess PP could indicate a pNET known as PPoma.
Working out which hormones are being over-secreted?
Clearly the presenting symptoms will give doctors a clue to the oversecreting hormone (see list above). Excessive secretions or high levels of hormones and other substances can be measured in a number of ways. For example:
Well known tests for the most common types of NET include 5-Hydroxyindoleacetic Acid (5-HIAA) 24 hour urine test which is also measured by a blood draw. Note: – tumor markers can be measured simultanously e.g. Chromogranin A (CgA) blood test and/or Pancreastatin as there can very often be a correlation between tumour mass and tumour secreting activity. CgA / Pancreastatin is a blood test which measures a protein found in many NET tumour cells. These marker tests are normally associated with tumour mass rather than tumour functionality.
By measuring the level of 5-HIAA in the urine or blood, healthcare providers can calculate the amount of serotonin in the body (5-HIAA is a by-product of serotonin). 5-HIAA test is the most common biochemical test for carcinoid syndrome or the degree of how ‘functional’ tumours are. If you’ve understood the text above, you can now see why there are dietary and drug restrictions in place prior to the test.
There are other tests for other hormones and there is a common test which measured the main hormones seen in NETs. It may be called different things in different countries, but in UK, it’s known as a ‘Fasting Gut Hormone Profile’.
Scratching the surface here so for a comprehensive list of marker tests for all NETs, have a read here.
Treatment for Over-secreting Hormones – i.e. Inhibitors
Of course, reducing tumour bulk through surgery and other treatment modalities, should technically reduce over-secretion. Clearly there will be exceptions to this rule of thumb. One of the key treatment breakthroughs for many NET cancer patients, is the use of ‘Somatostatin Analogues’ mainly branded as Octreotide (Sandostatin) or Lanreotide (Somatuline). Patients will normally be prescribed these drugs if they are displaying these symptoms but some people may be more avid to the drug than others and this may influence future use and dosages. This is another complex area but I’ll try to describe the importance here in basic terms. Somatostatin is a naturally occurring protein in the human body. It is an inhibitor of various hormones secreted from the endocrine system (some of which were listed above) and it binds with high affinity to the five somatostatin receptors found on secretory endocrine cells. NETs have membranes covered with receptors for somatostatin. However, the naturally occurring Somatostatin has limited clinical use due to its short half-life (<3 min). Therefore, specific somatostatin analogues (synthetic versions) have been developed that bind to tumours and block hormone release. Thus why Octreotide and Lanreotide do a good job of slowing down hormone production, including many of the gut hormones controlling emptying of the stomach and bowel. It also slows down the release of hormones made by the pancreas, including insulin and digestive enzymes – so there can be side effects including fat malabsorption. It’s also why somatostatin analogues are used in radioactive scans (e.g. Octreoscan, Ga68 PET) as the mix of radioactivity and these drugs binds to the tumours making them ‘light up’ and show on the gamma camera pictures. If you can see it, you can detect it!
Other than the effects of curative or cytoreductive surgery, some NETs may have very specialist drugs for inhibiting the less known hormone types.
Worth also noting that oversecreting hormones can contribute to a phenomenon known as Carcinoid Crisis – read more here. For catacholamine secreting tumors (Pheochromocytoma/Paraganglioma), this may be known as Intraoperative Hypertensive Crisis
Thanks for reading