Aims: To determine whether the presence and location of giant cells or granulomas in relation to crypts distinguishes between ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.
Methods and results: Twenty-nine large bowel mucosal biopsy specimens showing giant cells and/or granulomas in a background more typical of ulcerative colitis than Crohn's disease were collected between 1986 and 1996. Each was subject to detailed independent analysis by three histopathologists. Follow-up of the cases was by examination of all previous and subsequent gastrointestinal surgical or biopsy material and by scrutiny of the clinical notes by a gastroenterologist. On the basis of the accumulated histological data 10 of these 29 cases were accorded the diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. In nine of these 10 cases the clinical diagnosis, where known, was in keeping with this and all nine contained only crypt-associated giant cells and/or granulomas. The tenth case contained a solitary free-standing granuloma and clinically the patient had perianal disease, suggesting that the true diagnosis was Crohn's disease.
Conclusions: Isolated giant cells and well-defined epithelioid granulomas distant from crypts do not, as a rule, occur in ulcerative colitis, and hence their presence in a colonoscopic biopsy showing features of chronic inflammatory bowel disease is a strong pointer towards the diagnosis of Crohn's disease. Crypt-associated giant cells and granulomas can occur in ulcerative colitis and in themselves are unreliable features for the discrimination between Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.