Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Phaeochromocytoma: diagnostic challenges for biochemical screening and diagnosis
  1. Jeffrey Barron
  1. Correspondence to Jeffrey Barron, Biochemistry Department, Labtests, PO Box 12049, Penrose, Auckland 1642, New Zealand; jeffrey.barron{at}


The aim of this article is to provide knowledge of the origin of catecholamines and metabolites so that there can be an informed approach to the methods for biochemical screening for a possible phaeochromocytoma; The article includes a review of catecholamine and metadrenaline metabolism, with methods used in biochemical screening. In the adrenal medulla and a phaeochromocytoma, catecholamines continuously leak from chromaffin granules into the cytoplasm and are converted to metadrenalines. For a phaeochromocytoma to become biochemically detectable, metnoradrenaline secretion needs to rise fourfold, whereas noradrenaline secretion needs to rise 15-fold. The prevalence of a sporadic phaeochromocytoma is low; therefore false-positive results exceed true-positive results. Assay sensitivity is high because it is important not to miss a possible phaeochromocytoma. The use of urine or plasma fractionated metadrenalines as the first-line test has been recommended due to improved sensitivity. A negative result excludes a phaeochromocytoma. Only after a sporadic phaeochromocytoma has been diagnosed biochemically is it cost effective to request imaging. Sensitivities and specificities of the assays differ according to pre-test probabilities of the presence of a phaeochromocytoma, with hereditary and incidentalomas having a higher pre-test probability than sporadic phaeochromocytoma. In conclusion, in screening for a possible phaeochromocytoma, biochemical investigations should be completed first to exclude or establish the diagnosis. The preferred biochemical screening test is fractionated metadrenalines, including methoxytyramine so as not to miss dopamine-secreting tumours.

  • Catecholamines
  • chromogranin A
  • metadrenalines
  • phaeochromocytoma
  • screening

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.