Molecular basis of pharmacological therapy in Cushing's disease

Diego Ferone, Claudia Pivonello, Giovanni Vitale, Maria Chiara Zatelli, Annamaria Colao, Rosario Pivonello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cushing's disease (CD) is a severe endocrine condition caused by an adrenocorticotropin (ACTH)-producing pituitary adenoma that chronically stimulates adrenocortical cortisol production and with potentially serious complications if not or inadequately treated. Active CD may produce a fourfold increase in mortality and is associated with significant morbidities. Moreover, excess mortality risk may persist even after CD treatment. Although predictors of risk in treated CD are not fully understood, the importance of early recognition and adequate treatment is well established. Surgery with resection of a pituitary adenoma is still the first line therapy, being successful in about 60-70 % of patients; however, recurrence within 2-4 years may often occur. When surgery fails, medical treatment can reduce cortisol production and ameliorate clinical manifestations while more definitive therapy becomes effective. Compounds that target hypothalamic-pituitary axis, glucocorticoid synthesis or adrenocortical function are currently used to control the deleterious effects of chronic glucocorticoid excess. In this review we describe and analyze the molecular basis of the drugs targeting the disease at central level, suppressing ACTH secretion, as well as at peripheral level, acting as adrenal inhibitors, or glucocorticoid receptor antagonists. Understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms in CD and of glucocorticoid biology should promote the development of new targeted and more successful therapies in the future. Indeed, most of the drugs discussed have been tested in limited clinical trials, but there is potential therapeutic benefit in compounds with better specificity for the class of receptors expressed by ACTH-secreting tumors. However, long-term follow-up with management of persistent comorbidities is needed even after successful treatment of CD.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)181-198
Number of pages18
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Adrenal
  • Cushing's disease
  • Medical therapy
  • Molecular
  • Pituitary

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Medicine(all)


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