The histologic spectrum and clinical outcome of refractory and unclassified sprue

Am J Surg Pathol. 2000 May;24(5):676-87. doi: 10.1097/00000478-200005000-00006.


The vast majority of patients with celiac disease respond to a gluten-free diet; yet, a small number of refractory patients do not respond and have persistent malabsorption and residual mucosal abnormalities of the small intestine. The histologic features of refractory/unclassified sprue have been published as case reports, often without long-term follow up, and no clear histologic picture has emerged. We present the results of a long-term study of the clinical and histologic features of 10 patients with refractory/unclassified sprue. The histologic features of small bowel biopsies in this group of patients were compared with those of 10 patients with responsive celiac disease and with 10 patients without malabsorption who had normal duodenal biopsies. Five of the 10 refractory patients ultimately developed collagenous sprue as a distinct histologic marker of refractory disease. Additional distinctive findings found in small bowel biopsies in the refractory group were subcryptal chronic inflammation (10 of 10) and marked mucosal thinning in three patients. Other nonspecific findings included acute inflammation and gastric metaplasia. One patient with collagenous sprue developed a B-cell lymphoma of the ileum, and in general collagenous sprue was associated with a poor prognosis. Two of five patients died whereas two others require total parenteral nutrition for survival. Pathologists evaluating small bowel biopsies in the setting of malabsorption should be aware of the subtle histologic changes described here that may portend a refractory course.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Biopsy
  • Celiac Disease / complications
  • Celiac Disease / diet therapy
  • Celiac Disease / metabolism
  • Celiac Disease / pathology*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Collagen / metabolism
  • Colon / pathology
  • Enteritis / pathology
  • Humans
  • Ileal Neoplasms / complications
  • Intestinal Mucosa / pathology
  • Intestine, Small / pathology
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Lymphoma, B-Cell / complications
  • Metaplasia
  • Middle Aged
  • Parenteral Nutrition, Total
  • Stomach / pathology
  • Treatment Failure


  • Collagen