Is Serum TSH a Biomarker of Thyroid Carcinoma in Patients Residing in a Mildly Iodine-Deficient Area?

Endocrine. 2018 Aug;61(2):308-316. doi: 10.1007/s12020-018-1637-x. Epub 2018 May 31.


Purpose: To investigate the association between the pre-operative serum TSH (s-TSH) level and differentiated thyroid carcinoma (DTC) in a mildly iodine-deficient area.

Methods: Patients undergoing surgery for thyroid nodular disease (TND) were included from three tertiary surgical departments. Data were collected from a national thyroid surgery database (THYKIR) and from patient charts. Individuals with overtly coexisting thyroid disorders were excluded for subgroup analyses. Patients were compared with the Danish background population, employing previous data from DanThyr, a study initiated to monitor the iodine fortification program in Denmark.

Results: Nine-hundred ninety-eight patients [cases/controls: 265/733; female/male: 794/204; age (mean ± SD): 51 ± 15 years] were included. S-TSH was significantly higher in the DTC group [median (IQR): 1.3 (0.9-1.9 mIU/L)] compared with the benign TND group [0.9 (0.6-1.5 mIU/L)] (p < 0.0001). The median s-TSH in the background population was similar to that found among DTC patients (p = 1.00), but markedly higher than the s-TSH level in the benign TND group (p < 0.0001). There was no association between s-TSH and DTC disease stage (p = 0.08-0.87).

Conclusions: s-TSH was significantly higher in patients with DTC than in those with benign TND. However, this difference can be explained by abnormally lower s-TSH level in the latter group, probably caused by subtle nodular functional autonomy. Due to the huge overlap and the small difference in median s-TSH between patients with benign and malignant TND, s-TSH is not suitable as a biomarker of DTC in a clinical setting.

Keywords: Diagnosis; Prognosis; TSH; Thyroid carcinoma; Thyroid nodules.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Biomarkers / blood*
  • Carcinoma / blood
  • Carcinoma / diagnosis*
  • Carcinoma / epidemiology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Denmark / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Geography
  • Humans
  • Iodine / deficiency*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Residence Characteristics
  • Risk Factors
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / blood
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Thyrotropin / blood*


  • Biomarkers
  • Thyrotropin
  • Iodine