Celiac disease is a gluten-sensitive enteropathy, characterized by villous atrophy, which is reversed by gluten withdrawal. A minority of patients with celiac-like enteropathy are resistant to gluten-free diet, so-called refractory sprue, or unclassified sprue. Refractory sprue is a diagnosis of exclusion; all other causes of a celiac-like enteropathy must be eliminated before a diagnosis of refractory sprue can be made. Recent evidence suggests that refractory sprue comprises a heterogenous group of patients with diverse underlying causes. A small proportion of these patients seem to have an adult form of autoimmune enteropathy, characterized by the presence of antienterocyte antibodies. However, a larger group of patients with refractory sprue now seem to have a cryptic intestinal T-cell lymphoma, characterized by the presence of phenotypically abnormal, monoclonal intraepithelial lymphocytes, despite benign cytology. Current therapeutic options include nutritional support and immunosuppressive therapy, but response is variable. The prognosis of refractory sprue may be poor; patients may die of severe malabsorption, or through synchronous or metachronous development of an enteropathy-associated T-cell lymphoma. Based on this recent evidence, patients with refractory sprue should be screened for antienterocyte antibodies and have T-cell receptor and monoclonal antibody studies performed; this could facilitate identification of cases of adult-onset autoimmune enteropathy and those of cryptic T-cell lymphoma. Moreover, early recognition of the malignant nature of the intestinal infiltrate in some cases of refractory sprue could permit the development of novel chemotherapeutic regimens for this condition.
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Adult refractory sprue is a poorly defined disorder. We did a multicentre national study of patients with refractory sprue to characterise their clinical and pathological profile and outcome, and to assess the frequency and prognostic significance of phenotypic and molecular abnormalities in the intraepithelial T-cell population.
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