Ectopic corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) syndrome from metastatic small cell carcinoma: a case report and review of the literature

Diagn Pathol. 2010 Aug 31:5:56. doi: 10.1186/1746-1596-5-56.


Background: Cushing's Syndrome (CS) which is caused by isolated corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) production, rather than adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) production, is extremely rare.

Methods: We describe the clinical presentation, course, laboratory values and pathologic findings of a patient with isolated ectopic CRH causing CS. We review the literature of the types of tumors associated with this unusual syndrome and the behavior of these tumors by endocrine testing.

Results: A 56 year old woman presented with clinical and laboratory features consistent with ACTH-dependent CS. Pituitary imaging was normal and cortisol did not suppress with a high dose dexamethasone test, consistent with a diagnosis of ectopic ACTH. CT imaging did not reveal any discrete lung lesions but there were mediastinal and abdominal lymphadenopathy and multiple liver lesions suspicious for metastatic disease. Laboratory testing was positive for elevated serum carcinoembryonic antigen and the neuroendocrine marker chromogranin A. Serum markers of carcinoid, medullary thyroid carcinoma, and pheochromocytoma were in the normal range. Because the primary tumor could not be identified by imaging, biopsy of the presumed metastatic liver lesions was performed. Immunohistochemistry was consistent with a neuroendocrine tumor, specifically small cell carcinoma. Immunostaining for ACTH was negative but was strongly positive for CRH and laboratory testing revealed a plasma CRH of 10 pg/ml (normal 0 to 10 pg/ml) which should have been suppressed in the presence of high cortisol.

Conclusions: This case illustrates the importance of considering the ectopic production of CRH in the differential diagnosis for presentations of ACTH-dependent Cushing's Syndrome.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / blood
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism*
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / chemistry
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / complications*
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / secondary
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / blood
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / metabolism*
  • Cushing Syndrome / blood
  • Cushing Syndrome / etiology*
  • Diagnostic Techniques, Endocrine
  • Fatal Outcome
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Liver Neoplasms / chemistry
  • Liver Neoplasms / complications*
  • Liver Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Liver Neoplasms / secondary
  • Lymph Nodes / pathology
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / chemistry
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / complications*
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / metabolism
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / pathology
  • Paraneoplastic Endocrine Syndromes / blood
  • Paraneoplastic Endocrine Syndromes / etiology*


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone