Clinical characteristics: Familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (fHLH), defined as the presence of biallelic pathogenic variants in one of four genes (PRF1, STX11, STXBP2, or UNC13D), is an immune deficiency characterized by the overactivation and excessive proliferation of T lymphocytes and macrophages, leading to infiltration and damage of organs including the bone marrow, liver, spleen, and brain. Familial HLH usually presents as an acute illness with prolonged and high fever, cytopenias, and hepatosplenomegaly. Rash and lymphadenopathy are less common. Individuals with fHLH may also exhibit liver dysfunction and neurologic abnormalities. Although manifestations of fHLH are usually evident within the first months or years of life and may develop in utero, symptomatic presentation can occur throughout childhood and into adulthood. Median survival in untreated infants with fHLH who develop active disease is less than two months after onset of manifestations; progressive manifestations of fHLH, organ dysfunction, invasive infection, and bleeding account for the majority of deaths. Use of etoposide-containing regimens such as the HLH-94 and HLH-2004 protocols followed by allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) has improved survival.
Diagnosis/testing: The diagnosis of fHLH is established in a proband with suggestive findings by identification of either biallelic pathogenic variants in one of four genes (PRF1, STX11, STXBP2, or UNC13D) or (rarely) a gain-of-function heterozygous variant in STXBP2.
Management: Treatment of manifestations: Management should be coordinated by or in consultation with a multidisciplinary team with expertise in fHLH, including specialists in hematology/oncology, bone marrow and stem cell transplantation, immunology, rheumatology, infectious diseases, critical care, neurology, nephrology, pathology, and medical genetics. Treatment regimens focus on use of chemoimmunotherapy to treat active disease followed by allogeneic HSCT, the only curative therapy. Supportive care that should accompany treatment with chemoimmunotherapy and allogenic HSCT includes antibiotics or antiviral agents to treat or prevent infections, and antipyretics, intravenous fluids, electrolyte replacement, transfusion of packed red blood cells and platelets, infusions of immunoglobulin, fresh frozen plasma, and/or cryoprecipitate.
Surveillance: Individuals responding to treatment and HSCT are technically not at risk for other organ system involvement; thus, surveillance focuses on potential complications of fHLH while fHLH is active, such as bleeding, hypotension, respiratory distress, neurologic complications, malnutrition, infection, liver, or other organ failure.
Agents/circumstances to avoid: Live vaccines; exposure to infections; acetaminophen in persons with liver failure; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in persons with thrombocytopenia; areas of construction or soil manipulation (which increase the risk for fungal infection in individuals with neutropenia); transfusion of non-irradiated blood products in individuals undergoing chemoimmunotherapy and/or allogeneic HSCT.
Evaluation of relatives at risk: It is appropriate to identify – before symptoms occur –those at-risk sibs who have the family-specific pathogenic variants so that they can be monitored and preemptive HSCT considered (particularly during febrile episodes) for development of manifestations of active disease. Any manifestations of possible active disease should prompt more detailed evaluation and referral to a clinician with expertise in fHLH.
Genetic counseling: Familial HLH is inherited in an autosomal recessive manner. (Autosomal dominant inheritance of STXBP2-fHLH is suggested by rare reports of symptomatic individuals with heterozygous gain-of-function variants. Autosomal dominant inheritance will not be discussed further in this section.)
If both parents are known to be heterozygous for an fHLH-causing pathogenic variant, each sib of an affected individual has a 25% chance of inheriting biallelic pathogenic variants, a 50% chance of inheriting one pathogenic variant and being an asymptomatic carrier, and a 25% chance of inheriting neither of the familial fHLH-causing pathogenic variants. Once the fHLH-causing pathogenic variants have been identified in an affected family member, carrier testing for at-risk relatives and prenatal and preimplantation genetic testing are possible.
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