Indian Journal of Pathology and Microbiology
Home About us Instructions Submission Subscribe Advertise Contact e-Alerts Ahead Of Print Login 
Users Online: 1134
Print this page  Email this page Bookmark this page Small font sizeDefault font sizeIncrease font size

CASE REPORT Table of Contents   
Year : 2010  |  Volume : 53  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 148-151
Primary neuroendocrine carcinoma of thymus: A rare cause of Cushing's syndrome

Department of Pathology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Ansari Nagar, New Delhi, India

Click here for correspondence address and email

Date of Web Publication19-Jan-2010


Thymomas constitute majority of the thymic neoplasms. In contrast, neuroendocrine tumors (carcinoid and neuroendocrine carcinoma) of thymus are extremely rare. Thymic carcinoids may present rarely with Cushing's syndrome due to the ectopic production of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Recognition of this association is imperative for appropriate management of patients. We describe three cases of rare atypical carcinoid tumor (neuroendocrine carcinoma) of the thymus.
Case 1, of a 26-year-old man presenting with Cushing's syndrome, case 2 - a 23-year-old female with Cushingoid features, and Case 3 - a 39-year-old man complaining of progressively worsening dyspnea. Computed tomography (CT) scans of chest in all three patients revealed anterior mediastinal mass. Excision of tumors and histological examination of the three tumors showed a carcinoid tumor with nuclear pleomorphism, increased mitotic activity and focal necrosis. The features suggested a diagnosis of atypical carcinoid tumor in all the three cases. The tumor cells in Cases 1 and 2 showed focal immunohistochemical staining for ACTH.
Atypical carcinoid (neuroendocrine carcinoma, well-differentiated and moderately-differentiated) of the thymus is a rare thymic tumor which carries a worse prognosis compared to thymoma and requires aggressive therapy. Hence, an accurate diagnosis is essential.

Keywords: Atypical carcinoid, cushing′s syndrome, neuroendocrine carcinoma, thymus

How to cite this article:
Arora R, Gupta R, Sharma A, Dinda AK. Primary neuroendocrine carcinoma of thymus: A rare cause of Cushing's syndrome. Indian J Pathol Microbiol 2010;53:148-51

How to cite this URL:
Arora R, Gupta R, Sharma A, Dinda AK. Primary neuroendocrine carcinoma of thymus: A rare cause of Cushing's syndrome. Indian J Pathol Microbiol [serial online] 2010 [cited 2023 May 30];53:148-51. Available from:

   Introduction Top

Thymic carcinoid tumors are rare neoplasms accounting for about two per cent of all carcinoid tumors. [1] In majority of the cases, thymic carcinoids are atypical carcinoid tumors on histomorphological appearance. [2] Thymic carcinoid may rarely be the cause of Cushing's syndrome due to ectopic ACTH production. [3] Such tumors may escape initial detection due to the location and usually small size. In contrast to the more common thymic tumors, including thymoma, atypical carcinoids tend to have an aggressive clinical course and worse prognosis and hence their recognition is essential. [4] Recently, authors reporting cases of this unusual tumor have suggested the use of term 'neuroendocrine carcinoma' rather than atypical carcinoid. [5] Only a few reports of thymic carcinoid from this subcontinent were found in available literature. [6],[7],[8]

We report three cases of neuroendocrine carcinoma (atypical carcinoid tumor) of the thymus, two of which presented with Cushing's syndrome. This rare entity is briefly discussed with review of the relevant literature.

   Case Reports Top

Case 1

A 26-year-old male patient presented with significant weight gain and weakness. Physical examination showed skin pigmentation, moon-like facies, central obesity and buffalo hump in the upper back. He was normotensive (blood pressure 130/84mmHg). Laboratory investigations revealed hyperglycemia (fasting blood glucose 9.2mmol/L, normal range 3.9-6.1mmol/L), normal levels of serum electrolytes and thyroid hormones. The basal serum cortisol level was 41.1µg/dl (normal range 7-22µg/dl) at 8.00am and circadian rhythm was absent. Dexamethasone, eight mg, failed to suppress the 24-hour urinary free cortisol, UFC (UFC 3753µg/24h, normal range 20-90µg/24h). Plasma ACTH levels were markedly raised to 620pg/ml (normal range 12-78pg/ml). These features suggested a diagnosis of ACTH-secreting non-pituitary tumor. CT scan showed an anterior mediastinal (thymic) mass measuring six cm in diameter. There was no infiltration of adjacent structures or pleural effusion. The patient underwent resection of the mediastinal mass.

Case 2

A 23-year-old female presented with Cushingoid facies. Investigations showed hypercortisolism with raised serum ACTH levels and negative dexamethasone suppression test similar to Case 1. CT scan revealed an anterior mediastinal mass measuring two cm in greatest dimension. A thymectomy with excision of the tumor was performed.

Case 3

A 39-year-old man presented with history of gradually worsening respiratory difficulty for eight months. There were no associated complaints of cough, hemoptysis, palpitations or any significant past medical or surgical history. Radiological investigations, including CT scan, showed a large mediastinal mass measuring 12 cm in size compressing, but not infiltrating the adjacent structures. Biochemical investigations including serum cortisol and ACTH levels were within normal limits. The patient underwent thymectomy with excision of the tumor.

Pathological Findings

Gross and microscopic features were similar in all three cases, except for the size of the tumor. The tumor measured 5x3x3 cm in Case 1, 1.2x1.0.3 cm in Case 2 and 12x9.2x5.8 cm in Case 3.

Multiple sections from the three specimens showed tumor composed of cells arranged in sheets, nests, ribbons and festoons. The tumor cells were monomorphic with moderate amount of granular cytoplasm, round nuclei and finely dispersed chromatin [Figure 1]a, b. There was mild nuclear pleomorphism and mitotic activity ranging between 2-8/ 10 high power fields in the three cases [Figure 1]c. Focal hemorrhage and necrosis was also noted. Foci of hemosiderin pigment deposition and calcification were noted in case 1 [Figure 1]d. An occasional rosette formation was seen in cases 1 and 2.

On immunohistochemistry, the tumor cells showed strong cytoplasmic positivity for chromogranin and synaptophysin and dot-like positivity for cytokeratin (AE1/AE3) in all three cases [Figure 2]a, b, c. The tumor cells were negative for leukocyte common antigen, CD 20 (B-cell marker) and CD3 (T-cell marker). Tumor cells in cases 1 and 2, in addition, showed focal cytoplasmic immunoreactivity for ACTH [Figure 2]d.

A final diagnosis of atypical thymic carcinoid was rendered in all the three cases. The patients have been doing well at follow-up of five months in case 3, 10 months in case 2 and 11 months in case 1.

   Discussion Top

Carcinoid tumor in thymus is a rare occurrence and accounts for about two per cent of all carcinoid tumors. [4] On an extensive literature search, only a few cases of thymic carcinoid tumors reported from this subcontinent were found. [6],[7],[8] Rarely, carcinoid tumors of thymus may be associated with Cushing's syndrome due to ectopic ACTH production. Such thymic carcinoids, which are associated with Cushing's syndrome occur over a wide age range of four to 64 years and show no gender predilection. The most common manifestations of the tumors producing ectopic ACTH include Cushingoid features. However, hypertension, edema, severe hypokalemia and myasthenia are more common in ectopic ACTH-producing tumors than in Cushing disease. [9] The diagnosis of ectopic ACTH production relies on the negative suppression test using dexamethasone, corticotrophin releasing hormone or metyrapone. [4] If an ectopic source of ACTH secretion is suspected based on the negative dexamethasone suppression test, then X-ray and CT scan of the chest are recommended to detect small thymic carcinoids. [4] In the present series, Case 2 demonstrated such a case where a small thymic tumor was the source of ectopic ACTH production.

Carcinoid tumors, unlike thymoma, show histological features of a neuroendocrine tumor characterized by solid nests, ribbon and festoon, rosette-like glands and 'balls' of cells with central necrosis. Calcification, marked vascularity and lymphovascular embolization are frequent. [4] Immunohistochemical methods reveal positive staining for cytokeratin and neuroendocrine markers like synaptophysin, chromogranin and neuron-specific enolase. In addition, numerous bioactive amines and peptides including ACTH, serotonin and insulin have been demonstrated. [4] In the present series, two patients presented with Cushing's syndrome and thymic tumors in both these cases showed positive staining for ACTH.

The neuroendocrine tumors of thymus have earlier been divided using the classification proposed by Travis et al. for neuroendocrine lung tumors, i.e. typical carcinoid, atypical carcinoid, large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma and small cell carcinoma. [10] Applying the same criteria, all three tumors in the present series were categorized as atypical carcinoid tumors. The exact proportion of atypical carcinoid among thymic carcinoid tumors is not known, since only a few reports have categorized their tumors as typical or atypical. [4] However, it has recently been argued that the clinical behavior of thymic carcinoids follow a more aggressive course as compared to similar tumors at other locations.

For mediastinal carcinoids, a nomenclature proposed by Rosai et al[11] included carcinoid grade I (well differentiated, equivalent to conventional carcinoid); carcinoid grade II (moderately differentiated, equivalent to atypical carcinoid); and carcinoid grade III (poorly differentiated, equivalent to small cell carcinoma). Later, Wick and Rosai [12] suggested the use of the term 'neuroendocrine carcinoma' in place of carcinoid for mediastinal neuroendocrine tumors and this has been supported by other authors. [13],[14] The clinical behavior of neuroendocrine tumors of thymus correlates closely with the histological degree of differentiation: disease-free survival at five years has been reported to be 50% for well-differentiated, 20% for moderately differentiated and zero per cent for poorly differentiated tumors. [5]

The important differential diagnoses for thymic neuroendocrine tumors include thymoma, paraganglioma, parathyroid adenoma or carcinoma, medullary carcinoma of thyroid and lymphoma. Thymoma, especially of spindle cell type, may exhibit foci with neuroendocrine appearance due to epithelial pseudo rosettes. Immunohistochemistry helps in the distinction since thymomas are negative for neuroendocrine markers. [5] Mediastinal paragangliomas are also composed of prominent organoid or neuroendocrine pattern. Paragangliomas lack significant cytologic atypia, mitotic activity, necrosis, vascular invasion and cytokeratin expression. [5] Ectopic parathyroid adenoma or carcinoma may enter the differential diagnosis; and can be diagnosed by the presence of cytoplasmic glycogen and expression of parathyroid hormones on immunohistochemistry. [5] Medullary thyroid carcinoma in an ectopic mediastinal location may also be confused with thymic neuroendocrine tumors. However, immunoreactivity for calcitonin and carcinoembryonic antigen would help to make the correct diagnosis. Diffuse large cell lymphoma may be a diagnostic consideration in tumors composed predominantly of diffuse sheets. The granular character of chromatin, eosinophilic granular cytoplasm, focal nesting pattern and non-reactivity for lymphoid markers would assist in ruling out this possibility. [5]

Surgical resection is the best therapeutic modality for thymic carcinoids. Chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy has been tried, especially for metastatic carcinoids with variable response rates of 30-60%. [15] Invasion of local structures is reported in 50% of thymic carcinoids and extra thoracic metastasis in 20-30%. [16] In the present report, none of the three cases showed any evidence of local infiltration by the tumor and have been doing well on follow-up.

   Conclusion Top

Atypical carcinoid tumor (neuroendocrine carcinoma) of the thymus is a rare thymic neoplasm and may be the cause of ectopic secretion of adrenocorticotropin. Since the prognosis of neuroendocrine carcinoma is worse than thymoma, an accurate histopathological diagnosis is essential for management and prognostication of a given case.

   References Top

1.Rosai J, Higa E. Mediastinal endocrine neoplasm, of probable thymic origin, related to carcinoid tumor: clinicopathologic study of 8 cases. Cancer 1972;29:1061-74.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Valli M, Fabris GA, Dewar A, Chikte S, Fisher C, Corrin B, et al. Atypical carcinoids tumor of the thymus: a study of eight cases. Histopathology 1994;24:371-5.  Back to cited text no. 2      
3.Wajchenberg BL, Mendonca BB, Liberman B, Pereira MA, Carneiro PC, Wakamatsu A, et al. Ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone syndrome. Endocr Rev 1994;15:752-87.  Back to cited text no. 3      
4.Fujiwara K, Segawa Y, Takigawa N, Kishino D, Ida M, Eguchi K, et al. Two cases of atypical carcinoid of the thymus. Intern Med 2000;39:834-8.  Back to cited text no. 4      
5.Moran CA, Suster S. Neuroendocrine carcinomas (carcinoid tumor) of the thymus: A clinico-pathologic analysis of 80 cases. Am J Clin Pathol 2000;114:100-10.  Back to cited text no. 5      
6.Reddy KS, Shriram M, Bhansali A. Vanishing nail pigmentation. Ectopic Cushing's syndrome due to thymic carcinoid with secondary diabetes mellitus and hypertension. J Assoc Physicians India 2007;55:226.  Back to cited text no. 6      
7.Radotra B, Awasthi A, Joshi K, Das A. Histopathological spectrum of thymic neoplasms: twelve-year experience at a referral hospital in north India. Indian J Pathol Microbiol 2006;49:1-6.  Back to cited text no. 7  [PUBMED]    
8.Kale SB, Saksena DS, Kole SD, Agnihotri YC. Carcinoid tumors of the thymus. Asian Cardiovasc Thorac Ann 2006;14:e30-2.  Back to cited text no. 8      
9.Isidori AM, Kaltsas GA, Pozza C, Frajese V, Newell-Price J, Reznek RH, et al. The ectopic adrenocorticotropin syndrome: clinical features, diagnosis, management and long term follow-up. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2006;91:371-7.  Back to cited text no. 9      
10.Travis WD, Rush W, Flieder DB, Falk R, Fleming MV, Gal AA, et al. Survival analysis of 200 pulmonary neuroendocrine tumors with clarification of criteria for atypical carcinoid and its separation from typical carcinoid. Am J Surg Pathol 1998;22:934-44.  Back to cited text no. 10      
11.Rosai J, Levine G, Weber R, Higa E. Carcinoid tumors and oat cell carcinomas of the thymus. Pathol Annu 1976;11:201-26.  Back to cited text no. 11      
12.Wick MR, Rosai J. Neuroendocrine neoplasms of the thymus. Pathol Res Pract 1988;183:188-99.  Back to cited text no. 12 Montpréville VT, Macchiarini P, Dulmet E. Thymic neuroendocrine carcinoma (carcinoid): a clinicopathologic study of fourteen cases. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg 1996;111:134-41.  Back to cited text no. 13 Perrot M, Spiliopoulos A, Fischer S, Totsch M, Keshavjee S. Neuroendocrine carcinoma (carcinoid) of the thymus associated with Cushing's syndrome. Ann Thorac Surg 2002;73:675-81.  Back to cited text no. 14      
15.Moertel CG, Kvols LK, O'Connel MJ, Rubin J. Treatment of neuroendocrine carcinomas with combined etoposide and cisplatin. Evidence of major therapeutic activity in the anaplastic variants of these neoplasms. Cancer 1991;68:227-32.  Back to cited text no. 15      
16.Wick MR, Scott RE, Li CY, Carney JA. Carcinoid tumor of the thymus: a clinico-pathologic report of seven cases with a review of the literature. Mayo Clin Proc 1980;55:246-54.  Back to cited text no. 16      

Correspondence Address:
Ruchika Gupta
162, Pocket-B, Sarita Vihar, New Delhi-110 076
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0377-4929.59210

Rights and Permissions


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]

This article has been cited by
1 Atypical Carcinoid Syndrome in a Patient Presenting With Pericarditis and Supraventricular Tachycardia: A Case Report
Zahid Khan, George Besis, Niket Patel
Cureus. 2022;
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
2 Ectopic Cushing’s syndrome due to thymic neuroendocrine tumours: a systematic review
Fernando Guerrero-Pérez, Inmaculada Peiró, Agustina Pia Marengo, Alex Teulé, José Carlos Ruffinelli, Roger Llatjos, Teresa Serrano, Ivan Macia, Nuria Vilarrasa, Pedro Iglesias, Carles Villabona
Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders. 2021;
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
3 ?????? ????????????????????? ??????? ???????????? ????? ?? ????????? ??????????? ?? ????????? ???????????????? ?????? ??????? ??????, ?? ??????????????? ?????????? ????????? ???????
A.Yu. Havrylov
Endokrynologia. 2020; 25(1): 11
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
4 Rare Acute Presentation of a Low-Grade Thymic Neuroendocrine Tumor
Kush Gupta, Poras Patel, Saikrishna Patibandla, Raheel Anwar, Elizabeth Guevara
Cureus. 2020;
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
5 Neuroendocrine Carcinoma of the Thyroid Causing Adrenocorticotrophic Hormone–Dependent Cushingæs Syndrome
Deep Dutta,Satinath Mukhopadhyay,Indira Maisnam,Sujoy Ghosh,Pradip Mukhopadhyay,Subhankar Chowdhury
Thyroid. 2013; 23(1): 120
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
6 Computed tomography characterization of neuroendocrine tumors of the thymus can aid identification and treatment
Hui Li,De-ling Wang,Xue-wen Liu,Zhi-jun Geng,Chuan-Miao Xie
Acta Radiologica. 2013; 54(2): 175
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
7 Cushing Syndrome Secondary to a Thymic Carcinoid Tumor Due to Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 1
Ali A. Ghazi,Azizollah Abbasi Dezfooli,Farzaneh Mohamadi,Seyed Vahid Yousefi,Alireza Amirbaigloo,Siavash Ghazi,Marina Pourafkari,Dan Berney,Sian Ellard,Ashley B. Grossman
Endocrine Practice. 2011; 17(4): e92
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
8 Cushingæs Syndrome Secondary to a Thymic Carcinoid Tumor Due to Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 1
Ali A Ghazi,Azizollah Abbasi Dezfooli,Farzaneh Mohamadi,Seyed Vahid Yousefi,Alireza Amirbaigloo,Siavash Ghazi,Marina Pourafkari,Dan Berney,Sian Ellard,Ashley B. Grossman
Endocrine Practice. 2011; 1(-1): 1
[Pubmed] | [DOI]


    Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
 Related articles
    Email Alert *
    Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)  

    Case Reports
    Article Figures

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded273    
    Comments [Add]    
    Cited by others 8    

Recommend this journal