The diagnosis and management of malignant phaeochromocytoma and paraganglioma

    1. Ashley B Grossman4
    1. 1Department of Endocrinology and Endocrine Oncology, Theagenion Hospital, Thessaloniki, Greece
    2. 2Department of Pathophysiology, National University of Athens, Athens, Greece
    3. 3Department of Endocrinology, Elena Hospital, Athens, Greece
    4. 4Department of Endocrinology, Barts and the London School of Medicine, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Queen Mary University of London, EC1A 7BE London, UK
    1. (Correspondence should be addressed to A B Grossman; Email: a.b.grossman{at}


    Malignant phaeochromocytomas are rare tumours accounting for ~10% of all phaeochromocytomas; the prevalence of malignancy among paragangliomas is higher, especially those associated with succinate dehydrogenase subunit B gene mutations. Although a subset of these tumours has metastatic disease at initial presentation, a significant number develops metastases during follow-up after excision of an apparently benign tumour. Clinical, biochemical and histological features cannot reliably distinguish malignant from benign tumours. Although a number of recently introduced molecular markers have been explored, their clinical significance remains to be elucidated from further studies. Several imaging modalities have been utilised for the diagnosis and staging of these tumours. Functional imaging using radiolabelled metaiodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) and more recently, 18F-fluorodopamine and 18F-fluorodopa positron emission tomography offer substantial sensitivity and specificity to correctly detect metastatic phaeochromocytoma and paraganglioma and helps identify patients suitable for treatment with radiopharmaceuticals. The 5-year mortality rate of patients with malignant phaeochromocytomas and paragangliomas greater than 50% indicates that there is considerable room for the improvement of currently available therapies. The main therapeutic target is tumour reduction and control of symptoms of excessive catecholamine secretion. Currently, the best adjunctive therapy to surgery is treatment with radiopharmaceuticals using 131I-MIBG; however, this is very rarely curative. Chemotherapy has been used for metastatic disease with only a partial and mainly palliative effect. The role of other forms of radionuclide treatment either alone or in combination with chemotherapy is currently evolving. Ongoing microarray studies may provide novel intracellular pathways of importance for proliferation/cell cycle control, and lead to the development of novel pharmacological agents.

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