Background and study aims: The current internationally accepted gold standard for diagnosing celiac disease is a small-bowel biopsy demonstrating villous atrophy. However, it has been suggested that the diagnosis might not be considered as confirmed if the villous atrophy is patchy. Our aim was to assess whether there is an optimal duodenal biopsy strategy for detecting villous atrophy in adult patients with suspected gluten-sensitive enteropathy.
Patients and methods: Patients who had positive endomysial or tissue transglutaminase antibodies were prospectively recruited. Nine biopsies were taken from the duodenum: one from the duodenal bulb, four from the proximal duodenum, and four from the distal duodenum. Each biopsy was graded according to the Marsh criteria. All possible biopsy regimes were evaluated for their ability to detect the presence and severity of villous atrophy.
Results: A total of 56 patients were recruited (23 men [41 %], 33 women [59 %]; mean age 47, range 16 - 85): 53/56 patients had villous atrophy present in at least one biopsy; 10/53 patients had biopsy specimens that showed "patchy" villous atrophy. In all 53 patients with villous atrophy this was detected by taking a minimum of three biopsies (sensitivity 100 %, 95 % confidence interval [CI] 93.2 % - 100 %). However, this strategy always incorporated a duodenal bulb biopsy. The most severe degree of villous atrophy in all 56 patients was only detected by using a five-biopsy regime (sensitivity 100 %, 95 % CI 93.6 % - 100 %).
Conclusions: In this study we observed that villous atrophy in adult patients with suspected gluten-sensitive enteropathy (antibody-positive) is patchy. For this reason we would suggest a minimum of three biopsies, incorporating a duodenal bulb biopsy, to ensure that villous atrophy is detected. However, a five-biopsy regime is required for recognition of the most severe lesion.