Ectopic ACTH secretion occurs in highly differentiated and rather indolent tumors like bronchial carcinoids or, in contrast, in various types of aggressive and poorly differentiated neuroendocrine tumors. We explored this phenomenon using the recently cloned human pituitary V3 vasopressin receptor as an alternate molecular marker of the corticotroph phenotype. Expression of V3 receptor, corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) receptor, and proopiomelanocortin (POMC) genes was examined in tumors of pituitary and nonpituitary origin. A comparative RT-PCR approach revealed signals for both V3 receptor and CHR receptor mRNAs in 17 of 18 ACTH-secreting pituitary adenomas, and 6 of 6 normal pituitaries; in six growth hormone- or prolactin-secreting adenomas, a very faint V3 receptor signal was observed in three cases, and CRH receptor signal was undetected in all. Six of eight bronchial carcinoids responsible for the ectopic ACTH syndrome had both POMC and V3 receptor signals as high as those in ACTH-secreting pituitary adenomas; in contrast, no POMC signal and only a very faint V3 receptor signal were detected in six of eight nonsecreting bronchial carcinoids. Northern blot analysis showed V3 receptor mRNA of identical size in ACTH-secreting bronchial carcinoids and pituitary tumors. Other types of nonpituitary tumors responsible for ectopic ACTH syndrome presented much lower levels of both POMC and V3 receptor gene expression than those found in ACTH-secreting bronchial carcinoids. In contrast with the V3 receptor, CRH receptor mRNA was detected in the majority of neuroendocrine tumors irrespective of their POMC status. These results show that expression of the V3 receptor gene participates in the corticotroph phenotype. Its striking association with ACTH-secreting bronchial carcinoids defines a subset of nonpituitary tumors in which ectopic POMC gene expression is but one aspect of a wider process of corticotroph cell differentiation, and opens new possibilities of pharmacological investigations and even manipulations of this peculiar ACTH hypersecretory syndrome.


Y de Keyzer, F Lenne, C Auzan, S Jégou, P René, H Vaudry, J M Kuhn, J P Luton, E Clauser, X Bertagna


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