Patients with hypercortisolemic Cushing disease possess a distinct class of hematopoietic progenitor cells leading to erythrocytosis

Lilian Varricchio, Eliza B. Geer, Fabrizio Martelli, Maria Mazzarini, Alister Funnell, James J. Bieker, Thalia Papayannopoulou, Anna Rita Migliaccio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Although human cell cultures stimulated with dexamethasone suggest that the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) activates stress erythropoiesis, the effects of GR activation on erythropoiesis in vivo remain poorly understood. We characterized the phenotype of a large cohort of patients with Cushing disease, a rare condition associated with elevated cortisol levels. Results from hypercortisolemic patients with active Cushing disease were compared with those obtained from eucortisolemic patients after remission and from volunteers without the disease. Patients with active Cushing disease exhibited erythrocytosis associated with normal hemoglobin F levels. In addition, their blood contained elevated numbers of GR-induced CD163+ monocytes and a unique class of CD34+ cells expressing CD110, CD36, CD133 and the GR-target gene CXCR4. When cultured, these CD34+ cells generated similarly large numbers of immature erythroid cells in the presence and absence of dexamethasone, with raised expression of the GR-target gene GILZ. Of interest, blood from patients with Cushing disease in remission maintained high numbers of CD163+ monocytes and, although their CD34+ cells had a normal phenotype, these cells were unresponsive to added dexamethasone. Collectively, these results indicate that chronic exposure to excess glucocorticoids in vivo leads to erythrocytosis by generating erythroid progenitor cells with a constitutively active GR. Although remission rescues the erythrocytosis and the phenotype of the circulating CD34+ cells, a memory of other prior changes is maintained in remission.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1053-1067
Number of pages15
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2023


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