Adrenal tumor classification

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]



Tumors of the Adrenal Cortex

The adrenal cortex is composed of three distinct layers of endocrine cells which produce critical steroid hormones. These include the glucocorticoids which are critical for regulation of blood sugar and the immune system, as well as response to physiological stress, the mineralcorticoid aldosterone, which regulates blood pressure and kidney function, and certain sex hormones. Both benign and malignant tumors of the adrenal cortex may produce steroid hormones, with important clinical consequences.

Adrenocortical adenoma

Adrenocortical adenomas, or adrenocortical "nodules", are small, benign tumors of the adrenal cortex which are extremely common (present in 1-10% of persons at autopsy). The clinical significance of these neoplasms is twofold. First, they have been detected as incidental findings with increasing frequency in recent years, due to the increasing use of CT scans and magnetic resonance imaging in a variety of medical settings. This can result in expensive additional testing and invasive procedures to rule out the slight possibility of an early adrenocortical carcinoma. Second, a minority of adrenocortical adenomas are "functional", meaning that they produce glucocorticoids, mineralcorticoids, and/or sex steroids, resulting in endocrine disorders such as Cushing's syndrome, Conn's syndrome (hyperaldosteronism), virilization of females, orfeminization of males. Functional adrenocortical adenomas are surgically curable.

Adrenocortical carcinoma

Main article: Adrenocortical carcinoma

Adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) is a rare, highly aggressive cancer of adrenal cortical cells, which may occur in children or adults. ACC's may be "functional", producing steroid hormones and consequent endocrine dysfunction similar to that seen in many adrenocortical adenomas, but many are not. Due to their location deep in the retroperitoneum, most adrenocortical carcinomas are not diagnosed until they have grown quite large. They frequently invade large vessels, such as the renal vein and inferior vena cava, as well as metastasizing via the lymphatics and through the blood to the lungs and other organs. The most effective treatment is surgery, although this is not feasible for many patients, and the overall prognosis of the disease is poor. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormonal therapy may also be employed in the treatment of this disease.

Tumors of the Adrenal Medulla

The adrenal medulla is located anatomically at the center of each adrenal gland, and is composed of neuroendocrine (chromaffin) cells which produce and release epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream in response to activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Neuroblastoma and pheochromocytoma are the two most important tumors which arise from the adrenal medulla. Both tumors may also arise from extra-adrenal sites, specifically, in the paraganglia of the sympathetic chain.


Main article: Neuroblastoma

Neuroblastoma is an aggressive cancer of immature neuroblastic cells (precursors of neurons), and is one of the most commonpediatric cancers, with a median age at diagnosis of two years. Adrenal neuroblastoma typically presents with a rapidly enlarging abdominal mass. Although the tumor has often spread to distant parts of the body at the time of diagnosis, this cancer is unusual in that many cases are highly curable when the spread is limited to the liver, skin, and/or bone marrow (stage IVS). Related, but less aggressive tumors composed of more mature neural cells include ganglioneuroblastoma andganglioneuroma. Neuroblastic tumors often produce elevated levels of catecholamine hormone precursors, such as vanillylmandelic acid (VMA) and homovanillic acid, and may produce severe watery diarrhea through production of vasoactive intestinal peptide. Treatment of neuroblastoma includes surgery and radiation therapy for localized disease, and chemotherapy for metastatic disease.


Main article: Pheochromocytoma

Pheochromocytoma is a neoplasm composed of cells similar to the chromaffin cells of the mature adrenal medulla. Pheochromocytomas occur in patients of all ages, and may be sporadic, or associated with a hereditary cancer syndrome, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) types IIA and IIB, neurofibromatosis type I, or von Hippel-Lindau syndrome. Only 10% of adrenal pheochromocytomas are malignant, while the rest are benign tumors. The most clinically important feature of pheochromocytomas is their tendency to produce large amounts of the catecholamine hormones epinephrine(adrenaline) and norepinephrine. This may lead to potentially life-threatening high blood pressure, or cardiacarrythmias, and numerous symptoms such as headache, palpitations, anxiety attacks, sweating, weight loss, and tremor. Diagnosis is most easily confirmed through urinary measurement of catecholamine metabolites such asVMA and metanephrines. Most pheochromocytomas are initially treated with anti-adrenergic drugs to protect against catecholamine overload, with surgery employed to remove the tumor once the patient is medically stable.