Patients with Zollinger–Ellison syndrome may experience abdominal pain and diarrhea. The diagnosis is also suspected in patients who have severe ulceration of the stomach and small bowel, especially if they fail to respond to treatment.
Gastrinomas may occur as single tumors or as multiple small tumors. About one-half to two-thirds of single gastrinomas are malignant tumors that most commonly spread to the liver and to lymph nodes near the pancreas and small bowel.
Gastrin works on the parietal cells of the gastric glands, causing them to secrete more hydrogen ions into the stomach lumen. In addition, gastrin acts as a trophic factor for parietal cells, causing parietal cell hyperplasia. Thus, there is an increase in the number of acid-secreting cells, and each of these cells produces acid at a higher rate. The increase in acidity contributes to the development of peptic ulcers in the stomach, duodenum (first portion of the small bowel) and occasionally the jejunum (second portion of the small bowel)-- the last of which is an 'atypical' ulcer.
Zollinger–Ellison syndrome may be suspected when the above symptoms prove resistant to treatment, when the symptoms are especially suggestive of the syndrome, or when endoscopy is suggestive. The diagnosis is made through several laboratory tests and imaging studies:
Secretin stimulation test, which measures evoked gastrin levels. Note that the mechanism underlying this test is in contrast to the normal physiologic mechanism whereby secretin inhibits gastrin release from G cells. Gastrinoma cells release gastrin in response to secretin stimulation, thereby providing a sensitive means of differentiation.
Fasting gastrin levels on at least three separate occasions
Gastric acid secretion and pH (normal basal gastric acid secretion is less than 10 mEq/hour; in Zollinger–Ellison patients, it is usually more than 15 mEq/hour)
An increased level of chromogranin A is a common marker of neuroendocrine tumors.
The condition most commonly affects people between the ages of 30 and 60. The prevalence is unknown, but estimated to be about 1 in 100,000 people.
Sporadic reports of unusual cases of peptic ulceration in the presence of pancreatic tumors occurred prior to 1955, but R. M. Zollinger and E. H. Ellison, surgeons at The Ohio State University, were the first to postulate a causal relationship between these findings. The American Surgical Association meeting in Philadelphia in April 1955 heard the first public description of the syndrome, and Zollinger and Ellison subsequently published their findings in Annals of Surgery.