Pharmacologic management of Cushing syndrome : new targets for therapy

Treat Endocrinol. 2005;4(2):87-94. doi: 10.2165/00024677-200504020-00003.


The successful treatment of Cushing syndrome depends on specific therapy directed against the etiology of hypercortisolism. In addition to surgical procedures, various drugs have been employed in the management of this difficult disease. Compounds with neuromodulatory properties have been effective in only a limited number of cases of hypothalamic-pituitary-dependent Cushing disease, the most common form of Cushing syndrome. These agents include serotonin antagonists (cyproheptadine, ketanserin, ritanserin), dopamine agonists (bromocriptine, cabergoline), GABA agonists (valproic acid [sodium valproate]), and somatostatin analogs (octreotide). Interesting new avenues at the pituitary level involve the potential use of thiazolidinedione compounds, such as rosiglitazone, and of retinoic acid, which are ligands of different nuclear hormone receptors involved in hypothalamic-pituitary regulation. The most exciting news, however, in the pharmacologic approach to Cushing syndrome refers to the adrenal corticotropin (adrenocorticotropic hormone; ACTH)-independent forms, in which aberrant adrenal receptors, through the binding of their respective ligands, could lead to chronic cortisol overproduction. They include receptors for gastric inhibitory peptide (GIP), beta-adrenergic agonists, luteinizing hormone (LH)/human chorionic gonadotropin, serotonin (5-HT(4) receptor), vasopressin (V(1) receptor), and angiotensin II (AT(1) receptor). In GIP-dependent Cushing syndrome, the most frequent subtype of ACTH-independent macronodular adrenal hyperplasia associated with the presence of aberrant adrenocortical hormone receptors described so far, octreotide administration before each meal showed clinical efficacy only in the first few months, probably because of somatostatin receptor downregulation in GIP-secreting cells. Long-term medical treatments with propranolol and the gonadotropin-releasing hormone analog leuprorelin (leuprolide acetate) were effective in patients with catecholamine-dependent and LH-dependent Cushing syndrome, respectively. The oral vasopressin V(1) receptor antagonist OPC-21268 and the angiotensin II (AT(1)) receptor antagonist candesartan cilexetil were also able to decrease cortisol levels during the few days of administration of the drugs in patients with specific receptor abnormalities. These adrenal forms of Cushing syndrome are rare, and clinical data are scarce. Moreover, the real clinical significance of aberrant hormone receptors is still under investigation, as is the possibility of avoiding surgery by pharmacologic manipulation. Patients in whom these intriguing syndromes are suspected require detailed investigation protocols, which should be carried out in specialized centers. While awaiting further developments, the use of traditional medical treatment at the adrenal level with adrenal steroid inhibitors is still valuable in several instances.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Glands / drug effects
  • Cushing Syndrome / drug therapy*
  • Cushing Syndrome / physiopathology
  • Dopamine Agonists / therapeutic use
  • Enzyme Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • GABA Agonists / therapeutic use
  • Hormone Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / drug effects
  • Serotonin Antagonists / therapeutic use


  • Dopamine Agonists
  • Enzyme Inhibitors
  • GABA Agonists
  • Hormone Antagonists
  • Serotonin Antagonists