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Neuroendocrine Tumors — Laboratory Diagnosis

DOI: 10.2478/v10011-010-0028-5

Keywords: neuroendocrine tumors, somatostatin, chromogranin A, serotonin

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Neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) are a heterogeneous group of neoplasms originating from endocrine cells, which are characterized by the presence of secretory granules as well as the ability to produce biogenic amines and polypeptide hormones. These tumors originate from endocrine glands such as the adrenal medulla, the pituitary, and the parathyroids, as well as endocrine islets within the thyroid or the pancreas, and dispersed endocrine cells in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract. The clinical behavior of NETs is extremely variable; they may be functioning or not functioning, ranging from very slow-growing tumors (well-differentiated NETs), which are the majority, to highly aggressive and very malignant tumors (poorly differentiated NETs). Classically, NETs of the gastrointestinal tract are classified into 2 main groups: (1) carcinoids and (2) endocrine pancreatic tumors (EPTs). Most neuroendocrine tumors produce and secrete a multitude of peptide hormones and amines. Some of these substances cause a specific clinical syndrome: carcinoid, Zollinger-Ellison, hyperglycemic, glucagonoma and WDHA syndrome. Specific markers for these syndromes are basal and/or stimulated levels of urinary 5-HIAA, serum or plasma gastrin, insulin, glucagon and vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, respectively. Some carcinoid tumors and about one third of endocrine pancreatic tumors do not present any clinical symptoms and are called ‘nonfunctioning’ tumors. Therefore, general tumor markers such as chromogranin A, pancreatic polypeptide, serum neuron-specific enolase and subunits of glycoprotein hormones have been used for screening purposes in patients without distinct clinical hormone-related symptoms. Among these general tumor markers chromogranin A, although its precise function is not yet established, has been shown to be a very sensitive and specific serum marker for various types of neuroendocrine tumors. This is because it may also be elevated in many cases of less well-differentiated tumors of neuroendocrine origin that do not secrete known hormones. At the moment, chromogranin A is considered the best general neuroendocrine serum or plasma marker available both for diagnosis and therapeutic evaluation, and is increased in 50-100% of patients with various neuroendocrine tumors. Chromogranin A serum or plasma levels reflect tumor load, and it may be an independent marker of prognosis in patients with midgut carcinoids.


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