Gastrointestinal Pathology: Controversies in Non-neoplastic Biopsy Interpretation
Moderators: Robert D. Odze, Marie E. Robert, Donald A. Antonioli
Section 2 -
Controversial Inflammatory Conditions of the Small and Large Intestine
Marie E. Robert
Director, Program in Gastrointestinal Pathology
Yale University School of Medicine
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
The Small Intestine
Celiac Disease Then and Now.
Recent studies on celiac disease, more properly known as gluten sensitive enteropathy (GSE) have
heightened the pathologist's awareness of intra-epithelial lymphocytes in duodenal biopsies. Mild
histologic forms of GSE are now recognized with increased IEL's as the only histologic change. In this
talk, both the classic morphology and "minimal deviation" GSE are discussed in detail, with special
emphasis on the differential diagnosis and how to avoid over-diagnosing this disease. The
Marsh-Oberhuber classification will be described, however, a more practical diagnostic terminology is
recommended for use in pathology reports.
- Until recently celiac disease was a diagnosis that was
made in Western countries with confidence on small bowel biopsies. The criteria for pathologic diagnosis
required flat or near flat small bowel mucosa, usually accompanied by increased intra-epithelial
lymphocytes (IEL) and lamina propria inflammation in biopsies taken distal to the duodenal bulb. Before
1990, a diagnosis of untreated GSE was not further considered in biopsies that did not show significant
loss of villous height.
- Beginning around 1990 and continuing to the present,
several changes in our understanding of GSE have permanently altered the diagnostic landscape and have
eliminated the "gold standard" status of the small bowel biopsy
- These changes include 1) the recognition that latent or occult
(minimally symptomatic) GSE in adults represents a large, previously unappreciated disease population.
- The revision of histologic criteria to include minimal
inflammatory changes with intact or only mildly abnormal architecture as a part of the histologic
spectrum of GSE.
- The discovery that tissue transglutaminase (tTG) is the target
autoantigen of antibodies formed in GSE patients, and the subsequent development of a highly accurate
diagnostic test for anti-tTG antibodies.
Serological Testing for Celiac Disease (See Table)
- The ELISA based clinical test for IgA anti tTG antibodies has a high sensitivity and specificity (77%-100% and 91%-100% respectively, and has become the serological test of choice for GSE, largely replacing anti-gliadin and anti-endomysial antibody tests. While the anti-endomysial (EMA) test is as sensitive and specific as the anti-tTG test using human recombinant protein, the immunofluoresent test for EMA is labor intensive and relies on a more subjective interpretation than the newer anti-tTG test.
- Currently, the literature states that tTG and EMA tests are equivalent and equally useful as a single test. The anti-gliadin antibody test has always been the least accurate, with sensitivity and specificity ranging from 57%-100% and 47%-94% respectively.
Sensitivity and Specificity of Serological Tests for Gluten Sensitive
|Test ||Sensitivity ||Specificity|
|Anti-Tissue Transglutaminase (tTG) ||77-100%* ||91-100%|
|Anti-Endomysial Antibodies (EMA) ||86-100% ||90-100%|
|Anti-Gliadin Antibodies (AGA) ||57-100% ||47-94%|
* Includes both the guinea pig and human recombinant protein tests. The human recombinant protein
test is more sensitive and specific.
- HLA testing to detect susceptible HLA phenotypes (DQ2 and DQ8) is also likely to have an increasing role in the diagnostic work up of GSE. The absence of DQ2 or DQ8 virtually excludes the diagnosis.
Pathology of Celiac Disease
Several basic concepts should be taken into account when examining biopsies for a possible diagnosis
of celiac disease.
- Villous blunting is not specific for celiac disease.
Varying degrees of small bowel inflammation and villous blunting are seen in numerous conditions.
Conditions Showing Histologic Overlap with Gluten Sensitive Enteropathy
* Many, but not all conditions associated with increased IEL's also show diffuse villous blunting,
hence their appearance in both columns.
|Conditions Associated with Increased Intra-Epithelial Lymphocytes* ||Conditions Associated with Villous Blunting|
|Helicobacter Pylori Gastritis|
|Common Variable Immunodeficiency|
Microvillous Inclusion Disease
- As Marsh and other workers have described, the classic flat small bowel architecture of severe mucosal injury is but one end of a spectrum of pathologic changes seen in patients with a "state of gluten sensitivity".
- The degree of mucosal abnormality seen in any one set of biopsies, whether mild or severe, does not correlate with the severity of clinical symptoms. Instead, there is evidence that it is the overall length of small intestine (duodenum, jejunum) involved that correlates with the severity of clinical findings.
- Because of the recognition of variable histologic severity, the terminology used in pathology reports has become unstandardized. To minimize confusion, a uniform language of diagnosis should be utilized.
- GSE is a disease of the proximal small intestine in most patients, with disease severity usually greatest in the duodenum and proximal jejunum. The ileum can be involved in severe cases, but is not a reliable site for biopsy diagnosis.
- Although the duodenal bulb is subject to artifactual villous blunting due to prominent Brunner glands, and H. pylori related inflammation, there may be value in duodenal bulb biopsies in detecting patchy and subtle disease that is absent in more distal biopsies in GSE patients on a low gluten diet.
- Because we now recognize subtle and patchy histological findings in GSE, one could argue that it is best to biopsy at least two sites, the second duodenum, the proximal jejunum, and the duodenal bulb in order to avoid sampling error. Proper orientation of biopsies greatly facilitates the evaluation of mucosal architecture.
Pathology and Terminology for Reports
- The spectrum of histologic findings in celiac disease ranges from normal villous architecture with increased intra-epithelial lymphocytes as the only abnormality, to flat mucosa with crypt hyperplasia, increased intra-epithelial lymphocytes, epithelial injury, and increased lamina propria inflammation. The pathology will be illustrated during the lecture, and is amply described in any GI pathology texts.
- No system of reporting is perfect. However, the recommended terminology for pathology reports in this setting is the term "mucosal lesion" with the modifier mild, moderate or severe, corresponding to the degree of villous blunting. A note describing the changes and correlating the findings with whatever clinical information is available must accompany all such reports. A differential diagnosis should be included as appropriate.
- The term mucosal lesion is useful, because it does not require the absolute knowledge that the patient has celiac disease, but accurately describes the changes seen. Pathologists frequently do not have serological and other data at the time of sign out.
- The Marsh-Oberhuber Classification is useful as a study tool, and as a means of considering the biology of celiac disease. However, because of difficulties in distinguishing the early stages and because one cannot apply the type unless a definite diagnosis of celiac disease already exists, it is not useful for pathology reports in most practice settings. Nevertheless, pathologists should be familiar with the system, and specific centers may wish to utilize it.
Marsh-Oberhuber Classification of Celiac Disease*
|TYPE ||IEL'S / 100 EPITHELIAL CELLS ||CRYPTS ||APPEARANCE OF VILLI|
(Less than 40)
|Greater than 40 ||Normal ||Normal|
|Greater than 40 ||Hypertrophic ||Normal|
|Greater than 40 ||Hypertrophic ||Mild Blunting|
|Greater than 40 ||Hypertrophic ||Moderate Blunting|
|Greater than 40 ||Hypertrophic ||Severe Blunting |
|Greater than 40 ||Atrophic ||Severe Blunting |
*Types 0-2 are rarely seen and are present most frequently in patients with Dermatitis Herpetiformis,
asymptomatic patients and first-degree relatives of patients with GSE. Types 3a-c are usually found in
symptomatic GSE patients. Type 4 is rare and seen in refractory patients.
Biopsies with normal architecture and increased intra-epithelial lymphocytes
- Biopsies with increased IEL's as the only abnormality pose a difficult dilemma for the pathologist. First, the perception of increased IEL's is fraught with interobserver error on H and E stains. At best, the finding is non-specific and must always be correlated with serology.
- The proportion of patients with these minimal histologic changes who will eventually develop severe histologic lesions and symptoms is unknown. A small study suggested that 4/12 (33%) people with "mild" changes on duodenal biopsies progress to GSE with flat mucosa upon follow up. However, in a much larger study with 8-25 years of follow up only 5/236 (2.1%) people with biopsies showing increased IEL's or slight reduction in villous/crypt ratio went on to develop GSE.
- The upper limit of normal for numbers of IEL's is 20 lymphocytes per 100 epithelial cells. Careful analysis using CD3 and gamma/delta T-cell stains and counting 300-500 epithelial cells in several studies show reasonable agreement, that IEL counts of > 25/100 epithelial cells (or a ratio greater than 1:4) merit raising the suspicion for "potential celiac disease". However, this kind of painstaking analysis is entirely impractical for the practice setting.
- An alternative approach has been used successfully, where IEL counts in villous tips on H and E sections (5 villi, 20 epithelial cells in each) can be used to get a rapid and comparable assessment of IEL's. In general, counts of 6-12 IEL/20 epithelial cells in the villous tips of architecturally normal mucosa are found in patients who have serological or other evidence of GSE. The IEL counts are lower than those found in untreated flat GSE biopsies, and higher than normal controls. The counts obtained using the villous tip method correspond well with previous studies finding that >29 IEL's/100 epithelial cells is abnormal.
- Despite these impressive results, it bears repeating that finding increased IEL's in architecturally normal duodenal biopsies is a sensitive, but by no means specific test for potential GSE. Overlap in the IEL counts occurs between GSE and non-GSE patients in all studies. Many studies do not have adequate control groups that include patients on NSAIDs or patients with H. pylori gastritis; two common conditions routinely associated with increased IEL's in at least the bulb and occasionally the second duodenum.
- In summary, with regard to biopsies with normal to near normal architecture and a perceived increase in IEL's or a clinical question of GSE:
- Perform a scan of villi and especially villous tips looking for diffuse or patchy increases in IEL's.
- Avoid areas of even small lymphoglandular complexes in your assessment, as these will falsely elevate the IEL counts.
- If an obvious increase in IEL's exists, there is usually no need to count cells. Counting can be done using the villous tip method in more subtle cases if desired, without resorting to CD3 stains.
- Since correlation with serology will be required in all cases, it makes no sense to spend excessive time or expense counting IEL's outside of a research setting.
- If an increase in IEL's is found, the pathology report will then contain descriptive diagnosis, such as "duodenal mucosa with preserved villous architecture and increased intra-epithelial lymphocytes" with a note recommending correlation with serological and other evidence of GSE.
Intraepithelial Lymphocyte Counting Methods for Use in Architecturally
Normal Duodenal Biopsies*
|Diagnosis ||IEL/100 ||Enterocytes (total of 300-500 cells counted)|
|Upper limit of normal ||20/100|
|H and E |
|Borderline Increased ||25-29/100 ||H and E or CD3 stain|
|Definitely Increased ||>29/100 ||H and E or CD3 stain|
|Diagnosis ||Villous tip method|
(5 Villi, 20 Enterocytes/villous tips, average counts)
|Upper limit of normal ||5/20 ||H and E or CD3|
|Definitely Increased || 6/20 ||H and E or CD3|
*Avoid all LGC's
**Average the sum for all 5 villous tips
- Refractory or "unclassified" sprue is the absent or incomplete clinical response to a gluten-free diet. Accidental gluten ingestion must be excluded as well as other causes of diarrhea or malabsorption, such as pancreatic insufficiency, concomitant collagenous colitis, lymphoma or other rare entities, such as adult-onset autoimmune enteropathy.
- Some patients with refractory sprue have abnormal T-cell phenotypes, with a loss of surface CD4, CD8 and T-cell receptors, and display monoclonal rearrangements of the TCR gene. These observations have lead to the idea that a significant proportion of refractory sprue cases represent a form of "in situ" or cryptic T-cell lymphoma. In addition, the risk of progression to overt T-cell lymphoma is increased in refractory sprue patients with abnormal intraepithelial lymphocytes.
- PCR studies to detect T cell receptor gene rearrangements can be performed on paraffin blocks. Finding a monoclonal T-cell population helps confirm the diagnosis of refractory sprue, although it is unclear what therapy should be applied. The prognosis for patients with refractory sprue is extremely poor, with most patients requiring long term TPN and steroids for survival.
- Histologically, small bowel biopsies in refractory sprue show moderate to severe villous flattening despite strict adherence to a gluten free diet. The lesions may be patchy and variable in distribution, or may involve the entire small bowel, including the ileum. In some cases, the histology is identical to responsive, untreated GSE. However, certain histologic features may predict a refractory course, such as collagenous sprue basal plasmacytosis and mucosal thinning (atrophy).
- Autoimmune enteropathy is a rare condition, most common in infants, characterized by protracted, watery diarrhea and malabsorption associated with variably severe small bowel mucosal lesions. There is usually a family history of autoimmune diseases in patients or their families. Although initially described as a disorder of the small bowel, it is clear that the colon may be involved.
- Anti-enterocyte antibodies are present in approximately 50% of cases and are a fairly specific marker of the disease. Children with this condition are often severely ill, requiring elemental diets and TPN to survive.
- The pathologic features in small bowel biopsies include variable flattening of the villi with an increase in the number of lamina propria plasma cells and sometimes neutrophils. The number of intraepithelial lymphocytes may be normal or slightly increased. Crypt hyperplasia is usually, but not always, present. The severity of the lesion has been shown to correlate with the level of circulating anti-enterocyte antibodies.
Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug-Induced Injury
The Large Intestine
- NSAID's are associated with a number of gastrointestinal lesions, including ulceration throughout the gastrointestinal tract, non-ulcerating inflammatory changes, "diaphragm disease" in the small intestine, and microscopic colitis.
- Aside from the rare occurrence of diaphragm disease, the inflammatory changes seen in most forms of NSAID injury are entirely non-specific, and include increased lamina propria plasma cells, increased intraepithelial lymphocytes, neutrophilic infiltrates with cryptitis, and small erosions and ulcers.
- Diaphragm disease refers to numerous, thin web-like mucosal septae that project into the lumen of the small intestine, causing narrowing and obstruction. Histologically, they consist of mucosa with reactive epithelial changes, with or without surface erosions, and prominent submucosal fibrosis. The bands of fibrous tissue are usually oriented perpendicular to the surface of the mucosa. Mild chronic inflammation is often present.
- Microscopic colitis is an idiopathic clinical pathologic syndrome that consists of the triad of (1) chronic watery diarrhea associated with (2) a normal endoscopic appearance of the colon, and (3) two characteristic, but overlapping histologic patterns: lymphocytic or collagenous colitis.
- The first description of microscopic colitis was a report of collagenous colitis by Lindstrom in Sweden in 1976. He described a patient with chronic watery diarrhea, and a normal endoscopic exam whose biopsy revealed a collagen band underneath the epithelium in the rectal mucosa.
- The first description of what is now called lymphocytic colitis (then called microscopic colitis) was by Read et al. in 1980. In a paper entitled "Chronic diarrhea of unknown origin" Read described the investigation of 27 patients with severe chronic diarrhea. In eight of those patients, the only distinct clinical or pathologic finding was the presence of "mildly increased chronic inflammatory cells in the lamina propria" of colonic mucosal biopsies. The term "microscopic colitis" was proposed to describe this incidental finding.
- Microscopic colitis is seen predominantly in middle-aged women, many of whom have other autoimmune diseases. The male to female ratio is equal in lymphocytic colitis. Certain HLA phenotypes have been associated with microscopic colitis, and many medications, especially NSAIDs have been loosely or strongly associated with the development of microscopic colitis.
- The pathologic findings in lymphocytic colitis consist of
three features, seen in varying degrees. First and foremost is an increase in intraepithelial
lymphocytes (IEL's). In early studies there was an average of 24 lymphocytes per 100 surface epithelial
cells in biopsies from patients with lymphocytic colitis. This was a statistically significant increase
over normals where the number has been reported to be between 4-10 lymphocytes per 100 epithelial cells.
- The second component is surface epithelial injury, which
consists of a loss of the normal columnar shape, mucodepletion, and a flat or syncytial appearance of the
surface epithelium. The crypt epithelium shows nuclear enlargement and a slight increase in mitotic
- Finally, the lamina propria shows increased cellularity,
due primarily to increased plasma cells with a fewer number of lymphocytes, eosinophils, and rarely
neutrophils. In detailed studies morphometric analysis of mucosal biopsies demonstrated that in
lymphocytic colitis the lamina propria is 20% more cellular than in normal controls. The predominant
cell type in the lamina propria is the CD4 positive T-helper cell.
- In addition to the three main features described above, there are several pertinent
negatives in the diagnosis of lymphocytic colitis.
- By definition no subepithelial collagen deposition should be present, otherwise the diagnosis by default would be collagenous colitis.
- Also, the mucosal architecture at low power is essentially normal with the minor exception being that occasional branched crypts are sometimes seen. However, other features typical of ulcerative colitis, such as crypt abscesses and basal plasmacytosis are absent in most patients.
- It must be stressed that the histologic triad of increased IELs, surface epithelial injury, and increased lamina propria cellularity, is characteristic of lymphocytic colitis but is by no means specific.
- The primary distinction between lymphocytic colitis and
collagenous colitis is the presence of collagen deposition immediately beneath the epithelial basement
membrane in collageneous colitis. Several studies have demonstrated that the inflammation and epithelial
injury seen in collagenous colitis is remarkably similar to that seen in lymphocytic colitis. IELs are
increased, although often to a lessor extent than in lymphocytic colitis. Lamina propria cells are
likewise increased, however the proportion of types of inflammatory cells may be different.
- In collagenous colitis eosinophils may be markedly
increased, and are sometimes seen infiltrating crypt and surface epithelium. Neutrophils and crypt
abscesses are also slightly more common in collagenous colitis than in lymphocytic colitis.
- The pattern of surface epithelial injury in collagenous
colitis is similar to lymphocytic colitis, with mucodepletion and flattening of the cell surface.
However, a common and distinct finding in collagenous colitis is the separation of strips of surface
epithelium from the abnormal collagen layer. The separation appears to occur after biopsy, as no
inflammatory response is seen. This finding is so characteristic that the mere observation of separated
strips of epithelium from the lamina propria should prompt a search for collagen deposition in the
appropriate clinical setting.
- The collagen band consists predominantly of type VI
collagen, and tenascin, with lesser amounts of collagen type I and III. Tenascin is a glycoprotein that
is a marker of matrix remodeling. In addition, the trapped fusiform or stellate cells commonly seen
within the collagen matrix have ultrastructural features consistent with activated pericrypt
The differential diagnosis of microscopic colitis includes essentially all other inflammatory
conditions of the colon. For the purposes of discussion, the differential diagnosis can be put into
three broad categories, idiopathic inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease),
infections, and drug reactions.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are usually easy to distinguish from microscopic colitis.
Patients typically present with a different set of symptoms that includes abdominal pain and/or bloody
diarrhea. In addition, the majority of patients with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis present in
the first two to three decades of life, whereas microscopic colitis typically presents after the age of
forty. Endoscopic abnormalities are almost always found in Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis,
particularly at initial presentation before the institution of therapy.
- Finally, the pathology of these idiopathic inflammatory
bowel diseases is fairly distinct from that of microscopic colitis. Crohn's disease and ulcerative
colitis are characterized by varying degrees of mucosal architectural distortion, with crypt branching,
subcryptal plasmacytosis, crypt abscesses, erosions, ulceration, and granulomas in Crohn's disease.
Despite these usually striking differences, the distinction between inflammatory bowel disease and
microscopic colitis has recently been called into question, as will be discussed below.
- Infectious Colitis
Infectious colitis can be difficult to distinguish from microscopic colitis on histological grounds
alone. For example, in outbreaks of infectious diarrhea, biopsies taken from affected patients can
reveal changes indistinguishable from what we now call lymphocytic colitis. More typically, biopsies
from patients with bacterial infections reveal marked neutrophilic infiltrates and crypt abscesses.
Resolving infections may have a subtler pattern of inflammation that resembles lymphocytic colitis.
However, infectious diarrhea is usually easily distinguished from microscopic colitis by the self-limited
time course and other clinical data, such as stool cultures.
- Drug Reactions Drug
reactions as a category can be much more difficult to distinguish from lymphocytic and collagenous
colitis. There are a plethora of medications that have diarrhea as a side effect. A relatively small
subset of these medications is associated with histologic abnormalities in mucosal biopsies. Among these
medications, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) substances are most commonly associated with
- Among their many toxic effects, several NSAID's have been
associated with endoscopic and histologic changes identical to lymphocytic and collagenous colitis.
Whether the association is coincidental or causal is not clear. In some reports patients respond
entirely to withdrawal of NSAID's. In others symptoms and histologic changes persist despite withdrawal
of NSAID's, even though the onset of symptoms was temporally related to beginning these medications. In
practice, a history of NSAID use should be sought in patients with a new diagnosis of microscopic
colitis. If possible, these medications should be discontinued prior to labeling the patient with a
chronic colitic condition.
Microscopic colitis: changing pathology dogma
Since the initial descriptions and classification of microscopic colitis a number of
workers have reported unusual pathologic findings that require us to rethink our original conception of
these disorders. These findings can be divided into three main categories, which will be discussed here.
- The first change in pathology dogma relates to findings
in small intestinal biopsies in patients with lymphocytic and collagenous colitis. Several studies have
described increased intraepithelial lymphocytes in patients with lymphocytic and collagenous colitis.
In addition, subepithelial collagen deposition has been described in the terminal ileum in patients with
- The second change in dogma since the early studies of
microscopic colitis concerns the finding of focal "inflammatory bowel disease-like" changes in biopsies
from patients with lymphocytic and collagenous colitis. As mentioned previously, one of the
distinguishing features between microscopic colitis and Crohn's and ulcerative colitis is the lack of
architectural distortion in the former. However, it is now well established that occasional branched
crypts can be seen in either lymphocytic or collagenous colitis. A recent study found crypt abscesses in
up to 30% of patients with microscopic colitis, and foci of Paneth cell metaplasia. Focal inflammatory
bowel disease-like changes should not alter the interpretation if all other features, both clinical and
histologic, point towards the diagnosis of microscopic colitis.
- The third and most intriguing change in pathology dogma
is the association of microscopic colitis with prior or future Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
Crohn's disease has been reported to develop in patients whose prior biopsies showed features of
lymphocytic colitis. Conversely, there are reports of the development of collagenous colitis in
patients with long-standing ulcerative colitis.
- The possible association of microscopic colitis with the
other two main forms of idiopathic inflammatory bowel disease is intriguing. At this time, there is not
enough data to discern whether the association implies related pathogenesis, or simply reflects the
occurrence of two common diseases in the same patient. In the future, it may be important to examine
etiological relationships between these types of inflammatory bowel disease. HLA typing and other host
genetic associations as well as environmental triggers may be common to all three diseases.
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