Use of PET in neuroendocrine tumors. In vivo applications and in vitro studies

Q J Nucl Med. 2000 Mar;44(1):68-76.


Positron emission tomography (PET) performed with various radiolabelled compounds facilitates the study of tumor biochemistry. If the tumor uptake of an administered tracer is greater than that of surrounding normal tissue, it is also possible to localize the tumor. In initial studies, 18F-labeled deoxyglucose (FDG) was attempted to visualize the tumors, since this tracer had been successfully used in oncology, reflecting increased glucose metabolism in cancerous tissue. However, this tracer was not to any significant degree taken up by the neuroendocrine tumors. Instead, the serotonin precursor 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) labeled with 11C was used and showed an increased uptake and irreversible trapping of this tracer in carcinoid tumors. The uptake was selective and the resolution so high that we could detect more liver and lymph node metastases with PET than with CT or octreotide scintigraphy. One problem was, however, the high renal excretion of the tracer producing streaky artifacts in the area of interest. Using the decarboxylase inhibitor carbidopa, given as peroral premedication, the renal excretion decreased 6-fold and at the same time the tumor uptake increased 3-fold, hence improving the visualization of the tumors. When patients were followed during treatment with PET using 5-HTP as a tracer, a > 95% correlation between changes in urinary 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (U-5-HIAA) and changes in the transport rate constant for 5-HTP was observed. Thus, PET can be used to monitor treatment effects. Elevation of U-5-HIAA is considered to be uncommon in endocrine pancreatic tumors (EPTs). Initially, 11C-labeled L-DOPA was attempted as another amine important in the APUD system. With L-DOPA about half of the EPTs, mainly functioning tumors, could be detected. Recently, 5-HTP was explored as a universal tracer also for EPT and foregut carcinoids, extending the PET-examination to both thorax and abdomen (whole-body PET-examination). With this method we were able to visualize small lesions in the pancreas and thorax (e.g. ACTH-producing bronchial carcinoids) not detectable by any other method including octreotide scintigraphy, MRI and CT. Several other tracers have been investigated, e.g. the monoamineoxidase (MAO-A) inhibitor harmine with promising results in non-functioning EPTs. We are currently exploring a wide range of biochemical systems, including enzymes and receptors, both for neurotransmitters and for peptides and proteins in in vitro assays with the potential to use some of the developed tracers for in vivo visualization and tumor biological studies. In conclusion, PET is a valuable tool in the diagnosis of neuroendocrine tumors. It can detect small lesions in the thorax and abdomen not detected by other methods, which has been of great value preoperatively in several cases. It detects more lesions in the liver and lymph nodes than other methods and furthermore, it can be used to monitor treatment effects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Gastrointestinal Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Neuroendocrine Tumors / diagnostic imaging*
  • Neuroendocrine Tumors / secondary
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed*


  • Radiopharmaceuticals