Serum gastrin in Zollinger-Ellison syndrome: II. Prospective study of gastrin provocative testing in 293 patients from the National Institutes of Health and comparison with 537 cases from the literature. evaluation of diagnostic criteria, proposal of new criteria, and correlations with clinical and tumoral features

Medicine (Baltimore). 2006 Nov;85(6):331-364. doi: 10.1097/MD.0b013e31802b518c.


In two-thirds of patients with Zollinger-Ellison syndrome (ZES), fasting serum gastrin (FSG) levels overlap with values seen in other conditions. In these patients, gastrin provocative tests are needed to establish the diagnosis of ZES. Whereas numerous gastrin provocative tests have been proposed, only the secretin, calcium, and meal tests are widely used today. Many studies have analyzed gastrin provocative test results in ZES, but they are limited by small patient numbers and methodologic differences. To address this issue, we report the results of a prospective National Institutes of Health (NIH) study of gastrin provocative tests in 293 patients with ZES and compare these data with those from 537 ZES and 462 non-ZES patients from the literature. In 97%-99% of gastrinoma patients, an increase in serum gastrin post secretin (Delta secretin) or post calcium (Delta calcium) occurred. In NIH ZES patients with <10-fold increase in FSG, the sensitivity/specificity of the widely used criteria were as follows: Delta secretin > or =200 pg/mL (83%/100%), Delta secretin >50% (86%/93%), Delta calcium > or =395 pg/mL (54%/100%), and Delta calcium >50% (78%/83%). A systematic analysis of the sensitivity and specificity of other possible criteria for a positive secretin or calcium test allowed us to identify a new criterion for secretin testing (Delta > or =120 pg/mL) with the highest sensitivity/specificity (94%/100%) and to confirm the commonly used criterion for calcium tests (Delta > or =395 pg/mL) (62%/100%). This analysis further showed that the secretin test was more sensitive than the calcium test (94% vs. 62%). Our results suggest that secretin stimulation should be used as the first-line provocative test because of its greater sensitivity and simplicity and lack of side effects. In ZES patients with a negative secretin test, 38%-50% have a positive calcium test. Therefore the calcium test should be considered in patients with a strong clinical suspicion of ZES but a negative secretin test. Furthermore, we found that some clinical (diarrhea, duration of medical treatment), laboratory (basal acid output), and tumoral (size, extent) characteristics correlate with the serum gastrin increase post secretin and post calcium. However, using the proposed criteria, the result of these provocative tests (that is, positive or negative) is minimally influenced by these factors, so secretin and calcium provocative tests are reliable in patients with different clinical, laboratory, and tumor characteristics. A systematic analysis of meal testing showed that 54%-77% of ZES patients have a <50% postprandial serum gastrin increase. However, 9%-20% of ZES patients had a >100% increase post meal, causing significant overlap with antral syndromes. Furthermore, we could not confirm the usefulness of meal tests for localization of duodenal gastrinomas. We conclude that the secretin test is a crucial element in the diagnosis of most ZES patients, the calcium test may be useful in selected patients, but the meal test is not helpful in the management of ZES. For secretin testing, the criterion with the highest sensitivity and specificity is an increase of > or =120 pg/mL, which should replace other criteria commonly used today.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Calcium / blood*
  • Eating / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gastrins / blood*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 1 / blood
  • Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 1 / diagnosis
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Prospective Studies
  • Secretin / blood*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome / blood
  • Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome / diagnosis*


  • Gastrins
  • Secretin
  • Calcium