Children with Cushing’s syndrome are at risk of developing new autoimmune and related disorders after being cured of the disease, a new study shows.
Patients with Cushing’s syndrome have excess levels of the hormone cortisol, a corticosteroid that inhibits the effects of the immune system. As a result, these patients are protected from autoimmune and related diseases. But it is not known if the risk rises after their disease is resolved.
To address this, researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) examined 127 children with Cushing’s syndrome at the National Institutes of Health from 1997 until 2017.
Among the participants, 77.5 percent had a pituitary tumor causing the disease, 21.7 percent had ACTH-independent disease, and one patient had ectopic Cushing’s syndrome. All patients underwent surgery to treat their symptoms.
After a mean follow-up of 31.2 months, 7.8 percent of patients developed a new autoimmune or related disorder.
Researchers found no significant differences in age at diagnosis, gender, cortisol levels, and urinary-free cortisol at diagnosis, when comparing those who developed autoimmune disorders with those who didn’t. However, those who developed an immune disorder had a significantly shorter symptom duration of Cushing’s syndrome.
This suggests that increased cortisol levels, even for a short period of time, may contribute to more reactivity of the immune system after treatment.
The new disorder was diagnosed, on average, 9.8 months after Cushing’s treatment. The disorders reported were celiac disease, psoriasis, Hashimoto thyroiditis, Graves disease, optic nerve inflammation, skin hypopigmentation/vitiligo, allergic rhinitis/asthma, and nerve cell damage of unknown origin responsive to glucocorticoids.
“Although the size of our cohort did not allow for comparison of the frequency with the general population, it seems that there was a higher frequency of optic neuritis than expected,” the researchers stated.
It is still unclear why autoimmune disorders tend to develop after Cushing’s resolution, but the researchers hypothesized it could be a consequence of the impact of glucocorticoids on the immune system.
Overall, the study shows that children with Cushing’s syndrome are at risk for autoimmune and related disorders after their condition is managed. “The presentation of new autoimmune diseases or recurrence of previously known autoimmune conditions should be considered when concerning symptoms arise,” the researchers stated.
Additional studies are warranted to further explore this link and improve care of this specific population.