Protein-Losing Enteropathy in Systemic Lupus Erythematosus: Analysis of the Clinical Features of Fifteen Patients

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Protein-losing enteropathy (PLE) is an unusual manifestation of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), so its clinical manifestations and management are not well understood. In this study, we try to characterize the basic clinical features and the management of PLE by retrospectively analyzing the clinical data of 15 PLE patients and hope this study can improve the awareness of PLE in lupus patients with severe hypoalbuminemia that could not be explained by other causes.


The clinical data of 15 SLE patients with PLE hospitalized during November 2001 and April 2006 in Peking Union Medical College Hospital were retrospectively reviewed. The PLE was diagnosed by Tc-99m albumin scintigraphy (99mTc-HAS). The clinical characteristics, laboratory tests, response to treatment, and the outcome were studied.


The mean age of PLE onset was 40.1 ± 15.4 years (19–71 years). Twelve were female and 3 were male. 53.3% (8 of 15) patients had PLE as the initial presentation of SLE. All patients had different degree of peripheral pitting edema. Eleven had ascites, 9 had pleural effusion, and 7 had pericardial effusion. Only 6 patients presented with abdominal pain and diarrhea. Positive antinuclear antibodies (HEP-2) with a speckled pattern were found in all patients, but the antidsDNA antibody was negative in most cases. All patients had marked hypoalbuminemia, 80% had hypocomplementemia, 66.7% had hyperlipoproteinemia, and 40% had hypocalcemia. The liver function tests and the prothrombin time were in normal ranges. The 24-hours urine protein was less than 0.5 g in 60% (9 of 15) and more than 1.0 g in 20% (3 of 15) patients who were renal biopsied but only found to have very mild pathologic changes. Gastrointestinal endoscopy examination discovered generalized edema in the intestinal wall whereas the biopsy showed chronic inflammation only. Most cases had good response to corticosteroid and immunosuppressive therapies. The serum albumin level improved evidently in all patients after treatment and normal scintigraphic finding was found in 9 patients.


PLE can be the initial presentation of SLE or can develop a very long time after the diagnosis of SLE. The prominent clinical presentations are caused by hypoalbuminemia. 99mTc-HAS is useful not only for the diagnosis of PLE but is also helpful for monitoring the efficacy of treatment. When a SLE patient presents with evident hypoalbuminemia without evidence of other causes, PLE should be considered. Early diagnosis and treatment may improve the prognosis.

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