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Large EU grant for study of adrenal gland cancers

LMU endocrinologist will coordinate the project

Munich, 05/04/2010

Almost all tissue types in the human body can give rise to malignant tumors – including the adrenal gland. Cancers of this endocrine organ fall into two classes, carcinoma of the adrenal cortex and malignant pheochromocytoma. Both types can lead to massive overproduction of adrenocortical hormones that result in highly characteristic symptoms. “However, most cases of adrenal gland cancer are diagnosed too late to allow complete surgical removal of the tumor” says LMU endocrinologist Professor Felix Beuschlein. “And although other treatment options can be offered, the prognosis for patients suffering from either form of the disease is poor.“ Supported by a grant of 6 million Euros from the EU, a 5-year collaborative research project designed to investigate new approaches to diagnosis and treatment is about to begin. The project will involve participants from six European countries and will be led by Prof. Beuschlein. “We hope that the project will lead to a significant improvement of the outlook for affected patients”, says Beuschlein. In addition, by creating a linked network of treatment centers, we hope to ensure that all patients can obtain access to state-of-the-art diagnostic procedures and treatment.”

The adrenal gland is an endocrine organ which is located directly on top of the kidney, and secretes physiologically important hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. The gland plays a vital role in the regulation of salt and water balance, blood pressure and glucose metabolism. Disturbances in the synthesis and secretion of adrenal hormones can therefore lead to life-threatening conditions. Sometimes hormone overproduction is the consequence of a malignant tumor. Carcinoma of the adrenal cortex and pheochromocytoma of the adrenal medulla can both result in a drastic rise in the levels of circulating hormones. This in turn can produce such characteristic symptoms as a sudden rise in blood pressure, paleness and headaches, and can contribute to the development of obesity, muscle weakness and osteoporosis.

“Unfortunately, in most cases, these rare forms of cancer are diagnosed only when they have already invaded neighboring organs or have formed metastases elsewhere“, says LMU endocrinologist Professor Felix Beuschlein. “It is then no longer possible to surgically remove the tumor completely. And even when other treatment options are employed, the prognosis for such patients is poor.” A primary goal of the new project thetrefore is to develop better biochemical, histological and imaging techniques to improve the efficiency of diagnosis, to identify biomarkers specific for the various stages of the disease so that individual risk can be better evaluated, and to find new forms of therapy for the disease.

“This type of project cannot be carried out at the national level”, says Beuschlein. “The two types of adrenal gland cancer are so rare that the numbers of patients available would be too small to permit statistically reliable conclusions to be drawn. This factor makes it imperative to approach the problem from an international perspective.” The European Network ENS@T (“European Network for the Study of Adrenal Tumours“) was set up in 2002 with the aim of studying tumors of the adrenal gland on an international scale. The network has already made significant progress towards this goal. Thanks to the support of the EU, the new 5-year project, in which Beuschlein will act as the Coordinator, will have a budget of 6 million Euros. The various subprojects planned will involve 15 partner institutions in six European countries.

The participating researchers intend to build up a database which they hope will strengthen the infrastructure for clinical investigations and further facilitate international cooperation. Clinical studies on both carcinoma of the adrenal gland and malignant pheochromocytoma are also planned. The clinical material collected during these studies -- blood and urine samples for instance -- will then be analyzed with the latest molecular biological and genetic methods, with the aim of finding markers that can be used to characterize and classify tumors. This is a prerequisite for the development of personalized therapy of the disease. “We hope that this approach will help to improve the clinical prospects for patients significantly“, says Beuschlein. “We also want to link the European treatment centers together more effectively, so that patients everywhere are assured of state-of-the art treatment.“ (suwe)


Professor Felix Beuschlein
Endokrinological research focus
LMU Medical Center downtown campus
Phone: +49 (0) 89/5160-2110 or -2116

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