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Human chorionic gonadotropin and the thyroid: hyperemesis gravidarum and trophoblastic tumors.

There is abundant evidence that human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) is a weak thyrotropin (TSH) agonist. In FRTL-5 rat thyroid cells, hCG increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), iodide transport, and cell growth. hCG has thyroid-stimulating activity in bioassays in mice and in clinical studies in man. In cultured cells transfected with the human TSH receptor, hCG increases generation of cAMP. Molecular variants of hCG with increased thyrotropic potency include basic molecules with reduced sialic acid content, truncated molecules lacking the C-terminal tail, or molecules in which the 47-48 peptide bond in the beta-subunit loop is nicked. In normal pregnancy, when hCG levels are highest at 10 to 12 weeks gestation, there is suppression of serum TSH levels, presumably due to slight increases in free thyroxine (T4) concentration. In twin pregnancies, hCG levels tend to be higher and suppressed TSH levels are more frequent. Hyperemesis gravidarum, defined as severe vomiting in early pregnancy that causes 5% weight loss and ketonuria, is usually associated with increased hCG concentration. A high proportion of patients with hyperemesis gravidarum, about one-third to two-thirds in different series, have evidence of increased thyroid function. Only a small proportion of these patients have clinical hyperthyroidism, termed gestational thyrotoxicosis. These patients probably secrete a variant of hCG with increased thyroid-stimulating activity. Trophoblastic tumors, hydatidiform mole, and choriocarcinoma often cause hyperthyroidism because they secrete very large amounts of hCG. When the serum hCG exceeds about 200 IU/mL, hyperthyroidism is likely to be found. There is a correlation between the biochemical severity of hyperthyroidism and the serum hCG in these patients. Removal of the mole or effective chemotherapy of the choriocarcinoma cures the hyperthyroidism. In conclusion, hCG has thyroid-stimulating activity that influences thyroid function early in pregnancy when hCG levels are high. Excessive hCG secretion may cause hyperthyroidism in patients with hyperemesis gravidarum or trophoblastic tumors.

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