Jejunal biopsy specimens from 20 human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) positive male homosexual patients were analysed and compared with those of a control group to determine whether the abnormalities were caused by the virus or by opportunistic infection. The degree of villous atrophy was estimated with a Weibel eyepiece graticule, and this correlated strongly with the degree of crypt hyperplasia, which was assessed by deriving the mean number of enterocytes in the crypts. The density of villous intraepithelial lymphocytes fell largely within the normal range, either when expressed in relation to the number of villous enterocytes or in relation to the length of muscularis mucosae. Villous enterocytes showed mild non-specific abnormalities. Pathogens were sought in biopsy sections and in faeces. Crypt hyperplastic villous atrophy occurred at all clinical stages of HIV disease and in the absence of detectable enteropathogens. An analogy was drawn between HIV enteropathy and the small bowel changes seen in experimental graft-versus-host disease. It is suggested that the pathogenesis of villous atrophy is similar in the two states, the damage to the jejunal mucosa in HIV enteropathy being inflicted by an immune reaction mounted in the lamina propria against cells infected with HIV.
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