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Atypical or typical adrenocorticotropic hormone-producing pulmonary carcinoids and the usefulness of 11C-5-hydroxytryptophan positron emission tomography: two case reports

Jeanette Wahlberg12 and Bertil Ekman12*

Author Affiliations

1 Section of Endocrinology, Department of Medicine and Health Sciences, Faculty of Health, Sciences, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden

2 Department of Endocrinology, County Council of Östergötland, Linköping, Sweden

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Journal of Medical Case Reports 2013, 7:80  doi:10.1186/1752-1947-7-80

Published: 19 March 2013



Pulmonary carcinoids associated with ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone secretion have a good prognosis if histological examination shows typical pulmonary carcinoid and low proliferation, whereas a poor outcome is linked to atypical pulmonary carcinoid and high proliferation. Here we describe the diagnostic challenges to find the tumor in Cushing’s syndrome secondary to ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone secretion in two cases with an atypical and a typical pulmonary carcinoid, respectively.

Case presentation

A 63-year-old Caucasian woman presented with aggressive clinical features related to Cushing’s syndrome, having very high levels of urinary cortisol and circulating adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol. Magnetic resonance imaging showed no pituitary tumor, and bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling revealed no central peripheral ratio of adrenocorticotropic hormone. Computed tomography and 111Indium-pentetreoide somatostatin receptor scintigraphy could not visualize any ectopic tumor. The patient was referred for an 11C-5-hydroxytryptophan positron emission tomography, and a small 8mm nodule in her left lung was found. The tumor was removed via a lateral thoracic incision and wedge excision. The histological examination showed an atypical carcinoid with Ki-67 index of 9 to 10%, and an additional lobectomy was performed.

The second patient, a 22-year-old Caucasian man, also presented with aggressive Cushing’s syndrome, with very high urinary cortisol levels and increased circulating cortisol as well as adrenocorticotropic hormone levels. A magnetic resonance imaging scan of the pituitary showed no tumor, whereas a 12×9×14mm tumor was detected in the right lung on the primary computed tomography scan and no further investigation was performed. The tumor was removed via a lateral thoracic incision and wedge excision. A typical carcinoid with Ki-67 index of 1 to 2% was found and no further surgery was performed.

After surgical removal, the biochemical disturbances resolved and significant clinical improvement were achieved in both patients after 24 months of follow up.


Diagnostic evaluation time is limited due to the aggressive course in ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone-dependent Cushing’s syndrome. We suggest that 11C-5-hydroxytryptophan positron emission tomography could be considered early as a secondary diagnostic tool when primary computed tomography and/or magnetic resonance imaging scans fail to show any tumor.

ACTH; ACTH syndrome; Cortisol; Cushing’s syndrome; Ectopic; Pulmonary carcinoid