Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome

Authored by , Reviewed by Dr Adrian Bonsall | Last edited | Meets Patient’s editorial guidelines

This article is for Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Duodenal Ulcer article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

Treatment of almost all medical conditions has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. NICE has issued rapid update guidelines in relation to many of these. This guidance is changing frequently. Please visit https://www.nice.org.uk/covid-19 to see if there is temporary guidance issued by NICE in relation to the management of this condition, which may vary from the information given below.

Synonyms: Strom-Zollinger-Ellison syndrome

Zollinger-Ellison syndrome (ZES) is an endocrinopathy characterised by gastrin-secreting tumours, which cause multiple, refractory and recurrent peptic ulcers in the distal duodenum and proximal jejunum. There are two main variants:[1]

The tumour (gastrinoma) is usually in the duodenum (60-65%) or the pancreas (30%).[2]See also the separate article on Pancreatic Endocrine Tumours. In rare cases, gastrinomas occur in other abdominal locations (eg, the stomach, liver, bile duct, ovary) and also extra-abdominal locations (eg, the heart, lung - small cell lung cancer).[3]

  • The incidence of gastrinomas is 0.5-2/million population/year.[3]
  • 20-30% of patients have ZES as part of MEN1, an autosomal dominant disorder.[4]
  • Mean age of presentation is around 40, being younger in MEN1 patients than sporadic cases. Only about 3% present before age 20 and 7% after age 60.
  • Gastrinomas are the most common functioning tumour of the pancreas. In addition to secreting high levels of gastrin, these tumours may produce other hormones such as adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP), and glucagon.[4]
  • They can also produce various peptides, such as insulin, pancreatic polypeptide, glucagon, chromogranin A, neuron-specific enolase, and the alpha and beta subunits of human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG).

Patients with ZES as part of the MEN1 syndrome present at an earlier age (approximately 10 years earlier) and may have relatively mild symptoms which can be overlooked.[5]

  • Epigastric pain suggestive of peptic ulceration is common, especially in men and in sporadic cases of ZES.
  • The other major feature is diarrhoea and this particularly occurs in MEN1 and in women.
  • There is often both abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
  • Pain of gastro-oesophageal reflux, nausea, vomiting and weight loss may also occur.
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding is the presenting symptom in about 25% of patients.
  • Most children with the disease present with complications such as perforation or bleeding.

Other features suggestive of MEN1 should be sought.

If there is hepatomegaly, this suggests liver metastasis. Liver metastases occur much more frequently with pancreatic gastrinomas than with duodenal gastrinomas.[3]

There are a number of features that may arouse clinical suspicion. It is very common for it to be treated initially as a simple peptic ulcer.

  • The combination with diarrhoea may suggest the diagnosis.
  • Persistent recurrence of the condition after treatment should arouse suspicion.
  • Nearly all cases of duodenal ulcer and many of gastric ulcer are associated with infection with Helicobacter pylori but, in this condition, it is not required, as the high acid alone will cause ulceration.
  • As up to 50% of the population aged over 50 may be infected with H. pylori, the two may co-exist. However, there is evidence that the very high acid may kill the organism.
  • The presence of H. pylori may also predispose to gastric ulcers and reduce the level of acid secretion.
  • If endoscopy is performed, it may show a duodenal ulcer further down the duodenum than usual. This is typical of ZES and should arouse suspicion. Ulcers larger than 2 cm in diameter and multiple ulcers are also suggestive. Endoscopy may also show that gastro-oesophageal reflux has caused lower oesophageal stenosis or Barrett's oesophagus.

Biochemical serum evaluation for elevated gastrin, followed by radiological or nuclear localisation of the primary lesion, is necessary for establishing the diagnosis.[1]

Hypergastrinaemia is defined as fasting serum gastrin concentration >100 pg/ml and is seen frequently in clinical conditions other than ZES - eg, proton pump inhibitor (PPI) or H2-receptor antagonist therapy, post-vagotomy, renal failure and chronic atrophic gastritis.[6]

  • FBC may show evidence of iron-deficiency anaemia due to bleeding.
  • Ferritin may be low in non-anaemic iron deficiency.
  • As parathyroid hyperplasia is a common feature of MEN1, calcium may be elevated.
  • Clinical suspicion of duodenal ulcer should lead to testing for H. pylori. If it is negative, that may point to the syndrome, although there are many more common causes of H. pylori-negative dyspepsia. If it is positive but eradication does not cure the disease, this may also be suggestive but other more common conditions, such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, should be considered.
  • Endoscopy may show both gastric and duodenal ulceration along with hypertrophied gastric folds. The last was found in 94% of a large series. A more distal ulcer, or a large ulcer or multiple ulcers, have been mentioned above.
  • If ZES is confirmed, it is important to consider MEN1, and calcium, parathormone and prolactin levels should be checked.

If the diagnosis is suspected, then more specific tests are required - the following is one algorithm from Liverpool:[6]

  • Check fasting gastrin level - levels >1000 pg/ml with acidic gastric juice (pH<2) suggest ZES and the patient should undergo tumour localisation and further tests to rule out MEN1.[6]
  • More often though, levels of between 100-1000 pg/ml are encountered.[6] In this case it may help to test on at least three different days. The higher the level of gastrin, the worse the prognosis in sporadic cases but not in MEN1, where prognosis is better than in sporadic cases.
  • If the level of gastrin is <1000 pg/ml, the patient should go on to have provocation tests to determine if ZES likely - eg, secretin test (first-line) and calcium test (if secretin test negative), which are both discussed below.
  • If gastric acid pH is >2 with a raised gastrin level and the patient is on acid-suppressing drugs then stop treatment and recheck one week later.[6] If the gastrin level is still elevated then check gastric pH and decide as above as to whether provocation tests are needed. If the pH is >2 and the patient is not taking any acid suppressants, then a gastric biopsy is needed; if this shows atrophy, then further tests may be indicated, such as autoantibodies, B12 level and H. pylori.


There are a number of potential imaging techniques. Tumour localisation studies are required in all patients with biochemically confirmed ZES. An initial upper gastrointestinal endoscopy with careful inspection of the duodenum is recommended, followed by CT or by MRI and somatostatin receptor scintigraphy (SRS).[3]

  • CT scan may be used to locate the primary tumour and to detect metastases. It will detect only about half of primary tumours, and small ones of 1 cm diameter or less are often missed.
  • MRI and ultrasound scans are not as good as CT scan.
  • SRS is sensitive for detecting both primary and metastatic lesions.[7] It may be combined with endoscopic ultrasonography (EUS).
  • EUS is used for locating gastrinomas. Many tumours are in the head of the pancreas. Detection of pancreatic tumours is very good but less reliable outside the pancreas.

Secretin stimulation tests

  • Secretin is normally stimulated by food in the stomach, leading to release of bicarbonate-rich fluid from the pancreas which neutralises gastric acid. This leads to both inhibition of further secretin release and antral gastrin secretion, but with increased gastrin release from gastrinoma cells.
  • Secretin is administered (IV) and blood collected for gastrin levels at 0, 2, 5, 10, 15 and 20 minutes.
  • A positive test is when serum gastrin concentration increases by >200 pg/ml 15 minutes after the dose is given.
  • This has been reported to have a sensitivity of 94% and specificity of 100%.

Calcium stimulation test

  • Calcium also causes the release of gastrin stored in gastrinoma cells.
  • 10% calcium gluconate (dose of 5 mg/kg body weight) is given IV over three hours and gastrin levels determined at 0, 30, 60, 90, 120, 150 and 180 minutes.
  • A test is positive when gastrin increases >395 pg/ml from baseline.
  • Sensitivity is poor but specificity is excellent.
  • This test may be useful in patients with strong history suggestive of ZES but negative secretin test.

If ZES is confirmed, other features of MEN1 should be sought, including a family history.

It is a rare condition but there must be awareness of it. Follow the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines on the management of dyspepsia.[8]

Management includes medical suppression of gastric acid production and surgical resection of primary tumour for the prevention of malignant transformation and metastatic complications.[1]

In patients with liver metastases, surgery should be considered if all identifiable tumour can be safely removed.[9]Liver surgery is the best treatment for endocrine liver metastases, but it is often impossible due to diffuse disease. Systemic chemotherapy is poorly effective. Hepatic arterial embolisation and chemoembolisation may be considered.[10]

Drug treatment

  • Oral PPIs will be effective in maintaining acid secretion at an acceptable level but a higher dose than usual, such as omeprazole 40 mg daily, is required.
  • Oral doses of histamine H2 receptor antagonists (eg, ranitidine) can also be effective, but high, frequent dosing is required.[3]
  • Medical therapy with PPIs has virtually eliminated the need for acid-reducing surgical procedures.[1]
  • Chemotherapy may be tried for metastatic disease.[4]

Surgical treatment

  • Due to the efficacy of PPIs, total or partial gastrectomy is no longer indicated.
  • For sporadic gastrinomas, surgery, including complete resection of the primary and involved lymph nodes, is the only curative treatment.[3]
  • Laparoscopic resection of gastrinomas is controversial and not generally recommended.[3]
  • Patients with sporadic ZES without metastases should have surgical resection of the tumour, as this decreases the risk of liver metastases.[11]
  • Surgery in MEN1 is more contentious, as it rarely achieves cure but it may reduce the risk of metastasis. It is recommended for tumours over 2.5 cm.
  • A single liver metastasis may be resected.

Postoperative surveillance involves measurement of gastrin level, with imaging if an elevation of gastrin levels is detected. Re-excision of recurrent or resection of metastatic disease is controversial but aggressive excision is usually considered if feasible.[1]

  • Complications of ulceration include gastrointestinal bleeding and perforation.
  • Acid reflux can cause oesophagitis and oesophageal stricture.
  • The very high acid levels can inactivate pancreatic enzymes and precipitate bile salts so that malabsorption occurs.
  • Control of acid secretion limits complications.
  • Metastases: approximately 30-40% of gastrinomas are associated with liver metastases. At diagnosis, 5-10% of duodenal gastrinomas and 20-25% of pancreatic gastrinomas are associated with liver metastases.[3]

It has been argued that the widespread use of PPIs may delay the diagnosis of ZES so that presentation is later and more advanced.[12]

  • Poor prognostic factors include:[3]
    • Advanced tumour, node and metastasis (TNM) classification status; liver metastases, lymph node metastases, bone metastases.
    • Inadequate control of gastric acid hypersecretion.
    • Female gender.
    • Absence of MEN1.
    • Short disease history from onset to diagnosis.
    • Markedly increased fasting gastrin levels.
    • Presence of a large primary tumour; pancreatic primary gastrinoma.
    • Development of ectopic Cushing’s syndrome.
    • Histological features, including angioinvasion, perineural invasion, poor differentiation.
  • Ectopic Cushing’s syndrome develops in 5-15% of patients with advanced metastatic disease and has a very poor prognosis.
  • Most patients with ZES have lifelong hypergastrinaemia and require continuous PPI treatment.[13]

If MEN1 is diagnosed, genetic counselling and genetic testing of family members is recommended.

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Further reading and references

  • Frankel TL, Gauger PG; Image of the month. Wermer syndrome and Zollinger-Ellison syndrome. Arch Surg. 2009 Apr144(4):377-8.

  1. Epelboym I, Mazeh H; Zollinger-ellison syndrome: classical considerations and current controversies. Oncologist. 201419(1):44-50. doi: 10.1634/theoncologist.2013-0369. Epub 2013 Dec 6.

  2. Ito T, Igarashi H, Jensen RT; Therapy of metastatic pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (pNETs): recent insights and advances. J Gastroenterol. 2012 Sep47(9):941-60. doi: 10.1007/s00535-012-0642-8. Epub 2012 Aug 11.

  3. Jensen RT, Cadiot G, Brandi ML, et al; ENETS Consensus Guidelines for the management of patients with digestive neuroendocrine neoplasms: functional pancreatic endocrine tumor syndromes. Neuroendocrinology. 201295(2):98-119. doi: 10.1159/000335591. Epub 2012 Feb 15.

  4. Ito T, Igarashi H, Uehara H, et al; Pharmacotherapy of Zollinger-Ellison syndrome. Expert Opin Pharmacother. 2013 Feb14(3):307-21. doi: 10.1517/14656566.2013.767332. Epub 2013 Jan 30.

  5. Ito T, Igarashi H, Jensen RT; Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors: clinical features, diagnosis and medical treatment: advances. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2012 Dec26(6):737-53. doi: 10.1016/j.bpg.2012.12.003.

  6. Murugesan SV, Varro A, Pritchard DM; Review article: Strategies to determine whether hypergastrinaemia is due to Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2009 May 1529(10):1055-68. Epub 2009 Feb 18.

  7. Jensen RT; Gastrinomas: advances in diagnosis and management. Neuroendocrinology. 200480 Suppl 1:23-7.

  8. Dyspepsia: Managing dyspepsia in adults in primary care; NICE Clinical Guideline (2004)

  9. Krampitz GW, Norton JA; Current management of the Zollinger-Ellison syndrome. Adv Surg. 201347:59-79.

  10. Maire F, Lombard-Bohas C, O'Toole D, et al; Hepatic arterial embolization versus chemoembolization in the treatment of liver metastases from well-differentiated midgut endocrine tumors: a prospective randomized study. Neuroendocrinology. 201296(4):294-300. doi: 10.1159/000336941. Epub 2012 Apr 11.

  11. Norton JA, Fraker DL, Alexander HR, et al; Surgery increases survival in patients with gastrinoma. Ann Surg. 2006 Sep244(3):410-9.

  12. Ellison EC, Sparks J; Zollinger-Ellison syndrome in the era of effective acid suppression: are we unknowingly growing tumors? Am J Surg. 2003 Sep186(3):245-8.

  13. Jensen RT; Consequences of long-term proton pump blockade: insights from studies of patients with gastrinomas. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2006 Jan98(1):4-19.