Recombinant human thyrotropin (rhTSH) in the follow-up and treatment of patients with thyroid cancer

Emilio Bombardieri, Ettore Seregni, Carlo Villano, Gianluca Aliberti, Franco Mattavelli
Tumori 2003, 89 (5): 533-6
The follow-up of thyroid cancer is based on the detection of residual and recurrent thyroid carcinoma. This is traditionally done by means of measurements of serum thyroglobulin (Tg) combined with various imaging techniques (131I-whole body scan, ultrasound and other modalities). Tg serum levels and the uptake of 131I on a whole body scan (WBS) depend on TSH stimulation, which in thyroidectomized patients can be obtained either by withdrawal of thyroid hormone treatment (thyroxine) or by administration of exogenous TSH. At present exogenous human TSH is obtained by means of recombinant DNA technology, (recombinant human TSH (rhTSH), Thyrogen). Even if the administration of rhTSH and withdrawal of thyroid hormone are not completely equivalent, the use of rhTSH has already entered the clinical routine (rhTSH Tg test and rhTSH WBS) because with rhTSH the morbidity and discomfort associated with the withdrawal of thyroid hormone can be avoided. At a recent International Consensus Conference on the follow-up of differentiated thyroid carcinoma it was proposed to carry out only Tg measurement after rhTSH stimulation; moreover, it was stated that 131I whole body scan has to be discouraged in patients submitted to radical surgery and radioiodine ablation with no clinical evidence of residual tumor and with undetectable levels of Tg during hormonal suppression of TSH. Similar strategies in this respect tend to eliminate the 131I WBS and propose only the rhTSH Tg test combined with head and neck ultrasound (US). This is still a matter of debate, also because it is not valid for all risk groups and not all patients undergo the same clinical management (radical surgery or not, thyroid ablation with 131I or not). However, the availability of rhTSH will definitely change the management of papillary and follicular thyroid carcinoma, also with regard to iodine treatment. In fact, rhTSH can be used during radioiodine treatment to enhance the 131I uptake by the cancer cells in particular groups of patients. Patients who could benefit from this approach can be divided into three subgroups: 1) patients in whom thyroxine withdrawal may be dangerous because of the effects of long-term TSH stimulation on the tumor mass (brain metastases, vertebral metastases, presence of neurological signs, heart diseases); 2) patients affected by tumors with marked biological aggressiveness and a low iodine uptake (variants of follicular carcinoma, insular carcinoma, tall and columnar cell variants of papillary thyroid carcinoma, Hürthle cell carcinoma); 3) patients with hypothalamic-pituitary alterations. The potential efficiency of rhTSH in radiometabolic treatment is an important issue that has been studied in a limited number of patients, but is worthy of further investigations in large perspective. A recent clinical prospective trial has been proposed by the Thyroid Cancer Study Group of the Istituto Nazionale Tumori and is now ongoing.

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