Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor

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Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PanNETs, PETs, or PNETs), often referred to as “islet cell tumors”, or “pancreatic endocrine tumors” are neuroendocrine neoplasms that arise from cells of the endocrine (hormonal) and nervous system within the pancreas.

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are a type of neuroendocrine tumor, representing about one third of gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (GEP-NETs). Many PanNETs are benign, while some are malignant. Aggressive PanNET tumors have traditionally been termed “islet cell carcinoma”.

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are quite distinct from the usual form of pancreatic cancer, the majority of which are adenocarcinomas, which arises in the exocrine pancreas. Only 1 or 2% of clinically significant pancreas neoplasms are PanNETs


PanNETs are sometimes abbreviated as PETs or PNETs: such use should not to be confused with the primitive neuroectodermal tumor (PNET).

The majority of PanNETs are benign, while some are malignant. The World Health Organization (WHO) classification scheme places neuroendocrine tumors into three main categories, which emphasize the tumor grade rather than the anatomical origin. In practice, those tumors termed well or intermediately differentiated PanNETs in the WHO scheme are sometimes called “islet cell tumors.” The high grade subtype, termed neuroendocrine cancer (NEC) in the WHO scheme, is synonymous with “islet cell carcinoma”.

Signs and symptoms

Some Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors do not cause any symptoms, in which case they may be discovered incidentally on a CT scan performed for a different purpose.:43–44 Symptoms such as abdominal or back pain or pressure, diarrhea, indigestion, or yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes can arise from the effects of a larger PanNET tumor, either locally or at a metastasis. About 40% of PanNETS have symptoms related to excessive secretion of hormones or active polypeptides and are accordingly labeled as “functional”; the symptoms reflect the type of hormone secreted, as discussed below. Up to 60% of PanNETs are nonsecretory or nonfunctional, in which there is no secretion, or the quantity or type of products, such as pancreatic polypeptide (PPoma), chromogranin A, and neurotensin, do not cause a clinical syndrome although blood levels may be elevated. In total, 85% of PanNETs have an elevated blood marker.

Functional tumors are often classified by the hormone most strongly secreted, for example:

  • gastrinoma: the excessive gastrin causes Zollinger–Ellison syndrome (ZES) with peptic ulcers and diarrhea
  • insulinoma: hypoglycemia occurs with concurrent elevations of insulin, proinsulin and C peptide
  • glucagonoma: the symptoms are not all due to glucagon elevations, and include a rash, sore mouth, altered bowel habits, venous thrombosis, and high blood glucose levels
  • VIPoma, producing excessive vasoactive intestinal peptide, which may cause profound chronic watery diarrhea and resultant dehydration, hypokalemia, and achlorhydria (WDHA or pancreatic cholera syndrome)
  • somatostatinoma: these rare tumors are associated with elevated blood glucose levels, achlorhydria, cholelithiasis, and diarrhea
  • less common types include ACTHoma, CRHoma, calcitoninoma, GHRHoma, GRFoma, and parathyroid hormone–related peptide tumor
    In these various types of functional tumors, the frequency of malignancy and the survival prognosis have been estimated dissimilarly, but a pertinent accessible summary is available.


In general, treatment for PanNET encompasses the same array of options as other neuroendocrine tumors, as discussed in that main article. However, there are some specific differences, which are discussed here.

In functioning PanNETs, octreotide is usually recommended prior to biopsy:21 or surgery:45 but is generally avoided in insulinomas to avoid profound hypoglycemia.:69

PanNETs in MEN1 are often multiple, and thus require different treatment and surveillance strategies.

Some PanNETs are more responsive to chemotherapy than are gastroenteric carcinoid tumors. Several agents have shown activity. In well differentiated PanNETs, chemotherapy is generally reserved for when there are no other treatment options. Combinations of several medicines have been used, such as doxorubicin with streptozocin and fluorouracil (5-FU) and capecitabine with temozolomide. Although marginally effective in well-differentiated PETs, cisplatin with etoposide has some activity in poorly differentiated neuroendocrine cancers (PDNECs), particularly if the PDNEC has an extremely high Ki-67 score of over 50%.:30

Several targeted therapy agents have been approved in PanNETs by the FDA based on improved progression-free survival (PFS):

  • everolimus (Afinitor) is labeled for treatment of progressive neuroendocrine tumors of pancreatic origin in patients with unresectable, locally advanced or metastatic disease. The safety and effectiveness of everolimus in carcinoid tumors have not been established.
  • sunitinib (Sutent) is labeled for treatment of progressive, well-differentiated pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors in patients with unresectable locally advanced or metastatic disease. Sutent also has approval from the European Commission for the treatment of ‘unresectable or metastatic, well-differentiated pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors with disease progression in adults’. A phase III study of sunitinib treatment in well differentiated pNET that had worsened within the past 12 months (either advanced or metastatic disease) showed that sunitinib treatment improved progression-free survival (11.4 months vs. 5.5 months), overall survival, and the objective response rate (9.3% vs. 0.0%) when compared with placebo.


DNA mutation analysis in well-differentiated pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors identified four important findings:

  • as expected, the genes mutated in NETs, MEN1, ATRX, DAXX, TSC2, PTEN and PIK3CA, are different from the mutated genes previously found in pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
  • one in six well-differentiated pancreatic NETs have mutations in mTOR pathway genes, such as TSC2, PTEN and PIK3CA. The sequencing discovery might allow selection of which NETs would benefit from mTOR inhibition such as with everolimus, but this awaits validation in a clinical trial.
  • mutations affecting a new cancer pathway involving ATRX and DAXX genes were found in about 40% of pancreatic NETs. The proteins encoded by ATRX and DAXX participate in chromatin remodeling of telomeres; these mutations are associated with a telomerase-independent maintenance mechanism termed ALT (alternative lengthening of telomeres) that results in abnormally long telomeric ends of chromosomes.
  • ATRX/DAXX and MEN1 mutations were associated with a better prognosis.

Source: Wikipedia