Autopsy findings in 27 children with haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis

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Abstract

Aims:

Primary haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is a fatal childhood disorder. The diagnosis is difficult to establish, clinically as well as histopathologically, and it is markedly underdiagnosed. Because of these difficulties, we wanted to elucidate the histopathological findings in population-based patient material.

Methods and results:

The post-mortem findings in 27 children with primary HLH diagnosed in Sweden between 1971 and 1986 was reviewed. Twelve of these patients had an affected sibling and three additional children had parental consanguinity. Some of the children showed generalized disease, whereas in others only one or a few organs were affected. The major histological alteration was an accumulation of primarily lymphocytes, but also of histiocytes, some of which exhibited evidence of haemophagocytosis. The haemophagocytic activity may be difficult to detect if there are pronounced post-mortem changes, particularly in the spleen, and it is therefore preferable to perform the autopsy as soon as possible after death in order to minimize autolysis. Haemophagocytosis was most commonly observed in the spleen (17/24), the lymph nodes (17/23) and the bone marrow (9/23), indicating that a negative bone marrow examination does not rule out this diagnosis. Three additional patients had discrete signs of haemophagocytosis in the bone marrow. In the spleen, the lymph nodes and the bone marrow, lymphocytic depletion, pronounced in some cases, could be observed, even without prior treatment with steroids or cytostatics. In the liver, most of the patients demonstrated an infiltration of lymphocytes into the portal tracts similar to that seen in chronic persistent hepatitis (22/27), a finding which is uncommon in infancy and therefore suggestive of the diagnosis HLH. Other organs involved included the thymus, lungs, intestine, pancreas, kidney, heart and striated muscle.

Conclusions:

The diagnosis of HLH must be based on clinical, histological and additional laboratory findings. A negative bone marrow examination is common. Previous treatment with steroids and/or cytostatic drugs may attenuate or even eliminate the typical histological findings. Liver findings similar to those in chronic persistent hepatitis are common.

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