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APMIS. 2005 Jun;113(6):385-99.

Pathological and clinical significance of increased intraepithelial lymphocytes (IELs) in small bowel mucosa.

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Department of Histopathology, St Thomas' Hospital, Guy's & St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK.


Intestinal intraepithelial lymphocytes (IELs) belong to a unique T-cell population interspersed between epithelial cells of both the small and large intestine. It is becoming increasingly recognised that an increased number of IELs with a normal villous architecture is within the wide spectrum of histological abnormalities observed in coeliac disease. An increased number of IELs is the earliest pathological change following gluten challenge and a high IEL count may be the only sign of gluten sensitivity. Therefore, the finding of a raised IEL count with normal villous architecture is of sufficient clinical importance to be reported in routine small bowel biopsies. However, it is evident that not all small intestinal biopsy specimens showing increased IELs are explained by gluten sensitivity. Increased IELs in small bowel mucosa have also been associated with autoimmune disorders, tropical sprue, food protein intolerance, Helicobacter pylori-associated gastritis, peptic duodenitis, parasitic and viral infections, as well as the development of intestinal lymphoma. Histological examination of a biopsy specimen of the small bowel remains the diagnostic gold standard for coeliac disease. There will be an ever increasing demand for histological confirmation of gluten sensitivity in patients in whom the classic microscopic appearance of flattened villi may not have fully developed. The more widespread recognition by histopathologists of the pattern of injury manifested by increased numbers of IELs in intestinal biopsy specimens will certainly help in early diagnosis of coeliac disease, lessen diagnostic confusion and influence the modern practice of gastrointestinal tract medicine. This review discusses some of the recent developments in clinical pathology pertaining to increased IELs in small bowel mucosal biopsies.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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