Background: Adult refractory sprue is a poorly defined disorder. We did a multicentre national study of patients with refractory sprue to characterise their clinical and pathological profile and outcome, and to assess the frequency and prognostic significance of phenotypic and molecular abnormalities in the intraepithelial T-cell population.
Methods: Patients with severe symptomatic villous atrophy mimicking coeliac disease but refractory to a strict gluten-free diet, and with no initial evidence of overt lymphoma, were diagnosed at gastrointestinal referral centres between 1974 and 1998. Fixed and/or frozen duodenojejunal biopsy samples were reanalysed and immunostained with CD3 and CD8 monoclonal antibodies to find out the phenotype of intraepithelial lymphocytes (IEL). TCRgamma gene rearrangements were assessed on frozen biopsy samples by multiplex fluorescent PCR.
Findings: There were 21 patients with refractory sprue and 20 controls with coeliacs disease. 16 (84%) of 19 assessed patients had an aberrant intraepithelial lymphoid intestinal population expressing intracytoplasmic CD3 but not surface CD8. Clonal intestinal TCRgamma gene rearrangements were found in 13 (76%) of 17 patients assessed; four (out of 12 assessed) had clonal dissemination to the blood. The 16 patients with an aberrant phenotype all had uncontrolled malabsorption; three subsequently developed overt T-cell lymphoma, and eight died. The three (16%) patients without aberrant clonal IEL made a complete clinical and histological recovery with steroid therapy plus a gluten-free diet.
Interpretation: An immunophenotypically aberrant clonal intraepithelial T-cell population (similar to that of most cases of enteropathy-associated T-cell lymphoma) can be found in up to 75% of patients with refractory coeliac sprue; its identification by simple diagnostic techniques represents a marker of poor outcome (including occurrence of overt T-cell lymphoma). We suggest that refractory sprue associated with an aberrant clonal IEL may be the missing link between coeliac disease and T-cell lymphoma and may be classified as cryptic enteropathy-associated T-cell lymphoma.