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Is a raised intraepithelial lymphocyte count with normal duodenal villous architecture clinically relevant?
  1. S Mahadeva1,
  2. J I Wyatt2,
  3. P D Howdle1
  1. 1Department of Medicine, St James's University Hospital, Beckett Street, Leeds LS9 7TF, UK
  2. 2Department of Histopathology, St James's University Hospital
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor P D Howdle, Department of Medicine, St James's University Hospital, Beckett Street, Leeds LS9 7TF, UK;


Background: A raised intraepithelial lymphocyte (IEL) count with normal villous architecture is a recognised finding in latent coeliac disease. Little information is available in cases without gluten sensitive enteropathy in adults.

Aims: To assess the frequency of such a finding in routine practice and to determine whether it is clinically relevant.

Methods: Patients with subjectively increased IELs as the only abnormality were identified prospectively from a routine duodenal biopsy series over a 12 month period. The biopsy specimens in these index cases were re-examined together with two controls with normal histology for each case, and three counts of IEL/100 epithelial cells were made in all samples. The index cases were then contacted and interviewed to obtain clinical information, approximately 12 months from the initial biopsy. Further data were obtained from their clinical records.

Results: Fourteen of 626 (2.2%) patients who had duodenal biopsies over the 12 month period had a subjective increase in IELs with normal villous architecture. Fifteen patients with newly diagnosed gluten sensitive enteropathy were also identified during the study period. Formal counting of the index cases and controls revealed a significant difference in IELs/100 epithelial cell counts between the two (mean, 38 (SD, 6.2) v 12.4 (4.6); p < 0.0001). Three of the 14 index cases tested had a positive coeliac antibody test compared with 12 of 15 newly diagnosed patients with coeliac disease and 10 of 93 patients with normal histology. The major clinical diagnostic categories in raised IEL cases were those with positive coeliac serology (n = 3), unexplained anaemia (n = 3), and chronic liver disease (n = 3). Six of 10 patients who were interviewed had ongoing gastrointestinal symptoms one year later. Three patients had had follow up duodenal biopsies, at the discretion of their responsible clinicians, with no change in IEL counts despite the commencement of a gluten free diet in two patients.

Conclusion: A raised IEL count with normal villous architecture is not uncommon. Six of the 14 patients may have had latent coeliac disease. The cause in at least half of cases is not obvious at present. The finding of a raised IEL count with normal villous architecture is of sufficient clinical importance to be highlighted in routine duodenal biopsy reports.

  • intraepithelial lymphocytes
  • duodenum
  • villous architecture
  • coeliac disease
  • H&E, haematoxylin and eosin
  • IEL, intraepithelial lymphocyte

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