Prevalence of sporadic medullary thyroid carcinoma: the importance of routine measurement of serum calcitonin in the diagnostic evaluation of thyroid nodules

M Rieu, M C Lame, A Richard, B Lissak, B Sambort, P Vuong-Ngoc, J L Berrod, J P Fombeur
Clinical Endocrinology 1995, 42 (5): 453-60

OBJECTIVE: The prevalence of sporadic forms of medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC) has been studied in patients living in an area of moderate iodine deficiency. Such forms of MTC are usually diagnosed after surgery and have little chance of definitive cure. Using the measurement of basal serum calcitonin (CT) levels in a large series of patients with both thyroid disease and normal 24-hour urinary iodine excretion, we assessed the prevalence of MTC and, in patients affected with the disease, we also evaluated the stage of the disease according to surgical findings and post surgical plasma CT levels.

PATIENTS: A prospective study of 657 patients with thyroid disease (469 with nodular and 188 with non-nodular thyroid disease). As controls, 40 normal subjects were also studied.

MEASUREMENTS: In all patients: (1) measurement of basal serum CT, free T4, total T3, TSH levels and serum TSH-receptor, peroxidase and thyroglobulin (Tg) antibody concentrations, (2) thyroid ultrasonography, (3) fine needle aspiration cytology (FNAC). In patients with increased basal CT levels: (1) measurement of serum CT levels during pentagastrin test prior to surgery, (2) histological examination and immunostaining with both anti-CT and anti-Tg antibodies of all the nodular thyroid tissue surgically removed, (3) measurement of basal and pentagastrin stimulated serum CT values after surgery.

RESULTS: All the patients with non-nodular thyroid disease had normal basal CT levels. Four patients (0.84%) with nodular thyroid disease (2 with uninodular and 2 with multinodular goitre) had both elevated basal and pentagastrin stimulated CT levels. In the two patients with uninodular goitre, FNAC was suggestive of MTC in 1 (nodular diameter 8.0 cm) and of follicular carcinoma in 1 (nodular diameter 2.5 cm). Histological examination of the nodules confirmed these histotypes. Immunostaining with anti-CT antibodies was positive in the former patient but also in the latter. FNAC was suggestive of benign adenomatous tissues in the two patients with multinodular goitre. Histological examination of all the thyroid nodules confirmed the cytological findings. However, serial sections through the gland in each of these two patients showed an occult follicular carcinoma which had, however, positive staining with anti-CT antibodies. Furthermore, immunostaining with anti-Tg antibodies was negative in the patient with MTC but positive in the 3 patients with follicular carcinoma. Finally, both basal and pentagastrin stimulated CT levels remained elevated after total thyroidectomy only in the patient with FNAC suggesting MTC.

CONCLUSIONS: This study demonstrates a surprisingly high prevalence of sporadic forms of medullary thyroid carcinoma in patients with nodular thyroid disease. Such forms of medullary thyroid carcinoma seem to be unrelated to iodine intake and may be pure or mixed with a follicular carcinoma. In these mixed thyroid carcinomas, only the neoplastic follicular pattern was seen on both cytological and histological examination. Routine measurements of serum calcitonin levels should therefore be considered an integral part of the diagnostic evaluation of thyroid nodules. Indeed, increasing the accuracy of diagnosis of medullary thyroid carcinoma encourages the surgeon to perform more radical treatment, thus achieving more frequent normalization of post-operative serum calcitonin levels.

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