The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 18

I answered the 107 questions I have been asked most in the last four years. No jargon. No terminology. Just answers.

27. Can mast cell patients travel? Can they fly?
• This is very individual and dependent upon your personal health situation, your ability to manage bad reactions on your own, where you live and where you want to travel. I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel widely through exhaustive preparation.
• You should always talk to your care team when you are thinking about travel. You must have a detailed understanding about how to recognize when you are headed for trouble, what you should do if you get into trouble, and when you should pursue emergency care.
Always carry rescue medications, your emergency protocol on provider letterhead, and a sheet listing your diagnoses, daily meds, rescue meds, and any special precautions. List over the counter medications as well.
• Make sure that all of your medications are legal in the country you are traveling to. Importantly, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is illegal in some countries.
Get a fit to fly letter detailing what medications you need to bring onboard with you on letterhead from your doctor.
Call the airline directly to describe your needs. If you need to use medical equipment during the flight, tell them when you call and have the model number/ serial number ready.
• Also notify the airline if you need them to refrigerate medication for you.
• If standing is a trigger, or you have difficulty lifting luggage or carrying your bags with you, ask for a wheelchair to meet you at check-in and take you through the gate. It is my experience that when bringing a lot of medications through experience, it is easier to do this when you are in a wheelchair being escorted by airport personnel.
Identify safe foods at your destination. Many countries do not allow you to bring food in from another country. However, you can often bring solid food through the security to have on the plane.
• I premedicate heavily and many other mast cell patients who regularly fly also find that helpful. Speak with your providers about what protocol works best for you.
• Flying is unbelievably dehydrating. Hydrate well in the days before flying, the day of the flight, and while flying.
• Keep in mind that if the flight crew is uncomfortable with you flying, they can refuse to let you onboard. Emphasize that it is safe for you to to fly and that you have a fit to fly letter. If you are not able to manage a bad reaction alone, please do not fly alone.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

How to travel with mast cell disease

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 16

I have answered the 107 questions I have been asked most in the last four years. No jargon. No terminology. Just answers.

24. What is degranulation?
• Mast cells make chemicals inside them and often store them in pockets inside themselves. These pockets are called granules. When mast cells turn these pockets out so that the chemicals are dumped out of them into the body, that is called degranulation.
• There are several ways that mast cells release chemicals. These chemicals are commonly called mediators because they mediate many reactions in the body.
• Mast cells have to find certain building blocks from inside the body and whenever they find them, they use them to make mediators they need. Mast cells make some mediators whenever they have the opportunity and save them for later so they are there when they are needed. Often, the way mast cells save these mediators is by placing them inside granules. Mediators that are kept this way are called stored mediators.
• Mast cells have two options for getting those mediators out of their granules into the body. The first is to empty some of the granules entirely, just push everything out into the body at once. They can also release a little at a time. When mast cells are activated in response to an allergic or infectious process, overwhelmingly, they release the contents of a granule all at once.
Frequently, they empty many of the granules at the same time. This can cause an emergency response in your body and can impact your entire body. This is what happens during anaphylaxis but it happens during other processes too, like mast cell attacks, bad infections, or sudden trauma.
When mast cell patients say “I am degranulating”, it means they feel symptoms associated with mast cell mediator release. Histamine is stored in granules in large quantities so this is an offhand way of saying that they are feeling symptoms coming on.
• Mast cells have other ways of releasing mediators. They make some mediators only when they need to use them. These mediators are not stored but the building blocks they need are. A good example of this method is prostaglandin D2.
• Mast cells do not make prostaglandin D2 and stuff it inside granules. Instead, they keep the building blocks to make it inside of themselves. In this case, the building block they store is called arachidonic acid. When mast cells need to make prostaglandin D2, they use some of the arachidonic acid they have stored. But as soon as they use it to make prostaglandin D2, the mast cells secrete it right into the body. It is not stored in a granule.
• Mediators that are made with this kind of process are called “de novo” mediators. This means that the mediators are made “new” on demand when they are needed.

 

 

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 11

I have answered the 107 questions I have been asked most in the last four years. No jargon. No terminology. Just answers.

19. How do other conditions affect mast cell disease?
Mast cell activity can affect literally every system in the body.
• Mast cells are found throughout the body and live in many tissues and organs in significant numbers.
• There are essentially three types of damaging mast cell activity:
Normal mast cells are getting bad signals from other cells and they do bad things. This is not mast cell disease because these mast cells are not broken. They are getting signals from other broken cells.
Abnormal mast cells do bad things and tell other nearby cells to do bad things. This is mast cell disease, specifically mast cell activation syndrome and sometimes monoclonal mast cell activation syndrome.
You make way too many mast cells, they are abnormal, they do bad things, and they tell other nearby cells to do bad things. This is mast cell disease, specifically all forms of mastocytosis (systemic, cutaneous, and mast cell leukemia), sometimes monoclonal mast cell activation syndrome and mast cell tumors (mastocytoma and mast cell sarcoma).
• Generally speaking, if you have mast cell disease, any other condition you have will irritate your mast cell disease. This can also work the other way around and mast cell disease can irritate your other conditions.
• Many conditions naturally trigger higher level mast cell activation.
• Any disease that causes your body to make a lot of cells very quickly is likely to trigger to mast cell activation. Cancers are mast cell activating. Non cancerous diseases where you make too many blood cells at once, like polycythemia vera or essential thrombocythemia, are are mast cell activating.
• Mast cells are usually found very close to tumors. Sometimes, they are found inside tumors. Mast cells are important for tumors to survive because they can make blood vessels to bring tumors the blood they need.
Diseases affecting the immune system are triggering to mast cells. In fact, many patients have mast cell activation syndrome caused by the immune disease irritating their mast cells so much. Many mast cell patients have autoimmune diseases like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Many patients also have deficiencies in their immune system. Because mast cells are immune cells, they are very responsive to signals from other immune cells. Mast cells think those cells need help from them to fight an infection or disease so they respond strongly to “help”.
Diseases that cause inflammation also trigger mast cells. This can happen whether the inflammation is local or not. Systemic inflammation is more irritating to mast cells since that kind of inflammation can find more mast cells throughout the body. Local inflammation can irritate mast cells nearby. It can also call mast cells from other parts of the body to that location.
• Mast cells are actively involved in fighting infections from viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. This is the reason many mast cell patients find they are more reactive when they have even a minor illness, like a cold.
Any type of physical stress can activate mast cells. This can be something as simple as exercise or something more traumatic such as a car accident, a surgery, or childbirth. Even things that should be easy to recover from can activate mast cells, like a small cut, dehydration, or getting overheated. This also includes stress caused by another disease.
Emotional stress can activate mast cells, even if the big emotion is joy.
For more detailed reading, please visit this page:

Symptoms and effects of mast cell disease

 

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 6

I have answered the 107 questions I have been asked most in the last four years. No jargon. No terminology. Just answers.

12. What do these blood and urine tests look for?

• There are a lot of tests ordered for mast cell disease. How they are interpreted can depend upon a lot of factors. Some of the tests are unreliable, a fact that will be addressed in detail later in this series. (And has been addressed in detail elsewhere on this blog). Please keep in mind when reading this post that I am being VERY general and assumed the test was performed correctly on a correctly stored sample.
• The most common test ordered for mast cell disease is serum tryptase. Tryptase is a molecule that mast cells release. While it has lots of functions in the body, and is especially important in healing wounds and tissue growth, the amount present in your body at a given moment should be low.
• Tryptase is special because mast cells release it in two ways. Firstly, they make and release a little bit steadily. This is not related to activation. Mast cells just normally release a little tryptase as they go about their work. So the idea is that if you have more mast cells than you should, and each of those mast cells releases a little tryptase all the time, that you will have a higher than normal serum tryptase.
• Patients with a clonal mast cell disease, in which they have too many broken mast cells, usually have elevated baseline tryptase. This means tryptase that is elevated at least two times when you are NOT having a big reaction or anaphylaxis.
• Mast cells also store lots of tryptase in their pockets. When the mast cell is activated and it empties out its pockets, lots of tryptase comes out at once. This is why tryptase can be higher after a reaction or anaphylaxis, because mast cells release a bunch at once.
• Patients with mast cell activation syndrome or cutaneous mastocytosis do not always have elevated tryptase even with a big reaction or anaphylaxis.
• Mast cells have huge amounts of histamine stored in their pockets inside their cells. Histamine has lots of functions inside the body and is required for normal body functions. In particular, it is important to our nervous system. Smaller amounts are released as a normal function of the body.
• A lot of histamine is released when mast cells are activated. The idea is that if your mast cells are more activated than they should be that your histamine level will be higher. However, the test recommended for us to consider the histamine level in mast cell patients is not for histamine. It is for n-methylhistamine. This is a molecule that is formed when the body breaks down histamine, which happens very quickly (within minutes of release). n-methylhistamine is more stable, which is why we look at it.
• The test for n-methylhistamine is most reliable when performed in a 24 hour urine sample. This is because the level in urine can fluctuate throughout the day.
• Mast cells make a lot of prostaglandin D2 (abbreviated PGD2). PGD2 is very important for cell communicating. It can carry a message from one cell to another, allowing cells to work together. Unlike histamine and tryptase, mast cells do not keep PGD2 stored in their pockets. They make it only when they need it and then release it.
• PGD2 is released in large amounts when mast cells are activated. However, because it is not stored in the pockets, it is not always elevated right away when you have a big activation event or anaphylaxis. Prostaglandin D2 is broken down quickly. While we do test directly for PGD2 for mast cell disease, we also test for 9a,11-PGF2, a molecule formed when PGD2 breaks down.
• The tests for PGD2 and 9a,11b-PGF2 are most reliable when performed in 24 hour urine samples. This is because the levels in urine can fluctuate throughout the day.
• Heparin is a blood thinning molecule that is stored in pockets inside mast cells. Mast cells are the only cells that release significant amounts of histamine. When the mast cell is activated and it releases histamine, the histamine comes out stuck to heparin. Heparin is broken down very quickly so it is hard to measure accurately.
• The test to assess heparin level actually looks for a molecule called anti-factor Xa that can interact with heparin. This test is performed in serum.
• Chromogranin A is released by mast cells. It is also released by a lot of other cells. The level of this molecule can be affected by many things, including common medications. It is sometimes tested for and considered a sign of mast cell disease if elevated when all other possible reasons can be excluded.
• Chromogranin A levels are most reliable in serum.

 

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

The Provider Primer Series: Management of mast cell mediator symptoms and release

The Provider Primer Series: Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS)

The Provider Primer Series: Cutaneous Mastocytosis/ Mastocytosis in the Skin

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (ISM, SSM, ASM)

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (SM-AHD, MCL, MCS)

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 5

I have answered the 107 questions I have been asked most in the last four years. No jargon. No terminology. Just answers.

10. How is mast cell disease diagnosed?
• There are several tests you need to definitively determine if you have mast cell disease and what kind you have.
The most well known test for mast cell disease is serum tryptase. This is a blood test. This is the test doctors are most likely to have heard of. Doctors may think that you can’t have mast cell disease if tryptase is normal. This is not true.
• If a patient has a tryptase over 20 ng/mL, the next step is usually a bone marrow biopsy. A tryptase over 20 ng/mL increases the likelihood that a patient has systemic mastocytosis. SM is most commonly confirmed by a bone marrow biopsy.
• You need a special stain in order to see mast cells in any biopsy. Stains that show mast cells include Giemsa Wright stain and toluidine blue. Your doctor should specify these stains.
• Several tests must be run on the bone marrow biopsy to look for clonal mast cell disease. Remember that in clonal diseases, the body makes too many broken cells.
• The shape of the mast cells in the biopsy is very important. If the mast cells are not shaped right, this can be a sign of mast cell disease.
• The number of mast cells grouped together in the body is also important. If 15 or more mast cells are all stuck together, this is called a cluster. When mast cells are clustered together like this, they can punch holes in the tissue and damage it a lot. This prevents the tissue from working right.
• Immunohistochemistry (IHC) is a way to find specific proteins that allow us to know what cells we are looking at in the biopsy. Often, these proteins are on the outside of the cells. Think of these are flags that a cell can wave. IHC can look for the specific flags a cell is waving so that we know for sure which cell is which. For mast cell disease, they want to look for CD117, CD25, and CD2. The CD117 flag is flown normally by all mast cells. CD25 and CD2 are special flags flown by mast cells if you have clonal mast cell disease.
• PCR is a way to look for genetic mutations. They need to look for a mutation in the mast cells in the bone marrow. The mutation is found at a specific place in the CKIT gene. This mutation is found in 80-90% of patients with systemic mastocytosis. It may also be found if patients have monoclonal mast cell activation syndrome.
• If a patient does not have a tryptase over 20 ng/mL, a bone marrow biopsy is often not ordered. There are other tests that can indicate mast cell disease.
• Urine collected over 24 hours can be tested for specific chemicals. In the case of mast cell disease, they are looking for chemicals that can be high if you have mast cell disease. These chemicals have very long, complicated names. I will explain in a later post exactly what they are and what they do. The most common ones are called n-methylhistamine, prostaglandin D2, 9a,11b-prostaglandin F2, and leukotriene E4. Anti-heparin Xa and chromogranin A are sometimes tested. They are much less reliable as indicators of mast cell disease than the others mentioned here.
• If a patient is suspected to have cutaneous mastocytosis, a skin biopsy is needed to confirm. As with bone marrow biopsies, your doctor should specify that they need to use toluidine blue or Giemsa Wright stain to be sure they see the mast cells.
• The skin biopsy should also receive the other tests I described above for bone marrow biopsy: the counting of mast cells and looking at the shape; looking for CD117, CD2, and CD25; and looking for the same mutation with PCR.
11. What kind of doctor diagnoses mast cell disease? Can any doctor order these tests?
Doctors from all different specialties may diagnose and manage mast cell disease. It depends upon the individual provider and where you are located. It could be a dermatologist, allergist, hematologist, pulmonologist, gastroenterologist, or another specialist.
• The serum tryptase is the easier to order and the most well known test. Many labs can run this test.
• The 24 hour urine tests are specialized. Some of them are run in only a few places and samples are usually shipped there. Most often, these samples are run at the Mayo Clinic. Many outpatient labs have no way to run those tests. You will need to speak with your doctor about how to get these tests. It is often easiest if they are run by a hospital lab but again, this depends upon the hospital.
• The PCR genetic test for this specific gene is run in more places than the urine tests but is still not very common. Again, it is often easiest if they are run by a hospital lab.
• A bone marrow biopsy is usually ordered by a hematologist or by another specialist that works commonly with hematologists. They are usually performed by hematology providers. Some testing can usually be performed in house (the counting of the cells and looking at the shape) while others may need to be sent out (the IHC testing).
• A skin biopsy is usually ordered by a dermatologist. Some testing can usually be performed in house (the counting of the cells and looking at the shape) while others may need to be sent out (the IHC testing).
For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

The Provider Primer Series: Management of mast cell mediator symptoms and release

The Provider Primer Series: Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS)

The Provider Primer Series: Cutaneous Mastocytosis/ Mastocytosis in the Skin

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (ISM, SSM, ASM)

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (SM-AHD, MCL, MCS)

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 3

I have answered the 107 questions I have been asked most in the last four years. No jargon. No terminology. Just answers.

6. What symptoms does mast cell disease cause?

  • Mast cell disease can cause just about any symptom. Seriously.
  • Mast cell disease can cause symptoms in every system of the body. This is because mast cells are found in tissues throughout the body. They are intimately involved in lots of normal functions of the human body. When mast cells are not working correctly, lots of normal functions are not carried out correctly. When this happens, it causes symptoms. In short, mast cells can cause symptoms anywhere in the body because they were there already to help your body work right.
  • Skin symptoms can include flushing, rashes, hives (urticaria), itching, blistering, and swelling under the skin (angioedema).
  • GI symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, problems with the GI not moving correctly in general (GI dysmotility), swelling of the GI tract, chest and abdominal pain, belching, bloating, discolored stool, excessive salivation, dry mouth, and trouble swallowing.
  • Cardiovascular symptoms include high or low blood pressure, fast or slow heart rate, irregular heartbeat, and poor circulation.
  • Neuropsychiatric symptoms include brain fog, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping at night, excessive tiredness during the day, grogginess, anxiety, depression, tremors, numbness, weakness, burning and tingling (pins and needles), hearing loss, and auditory processing (difficulty understanding what was said to you).
  • Genitourinary symptoms include bladder pain, painful urination, painful intercourse/sexual activities, painful or irregular menstrual cycle (periods), and excessive or inadequate urination (too much or too little urine produced).
  • Respiratory symptoms include cough, excessive phlegm, wheezing, runny nose, sinus congestion, sneezing, and swelling of the airway.
  • General symptoms include fatigue, lack of stamina, difficulty exercising, itchy or watery eyes, and bruising easily.
  • There are some additional symptoms that I have observed in a large number of people that are not classically considered mast cell symptoms, but I now firmly believe them to be. One is fever. I think discoloration of the skin may be mast cell related for some people. Another is dystonia, involuntary muscle contraction, which can mimic appearance of a seizure. There are also different seizure-type episodes that may occur due to the nervous system being overactive. I am reluctant to call them pseudoseizures because that term specifically means they are caused as a result of mental illness. I have no evidence that these seizure-type episodes in mast cell patients occur due to mental illness. I personally refer to them as “mast cell derived seizures.” (For people who are wondering, I have been heavily researching this phenomenon and have some theories about why this happens. It’s not fleshed out enough yet to post but it’s on my think list.)
  • Having mast cell disease can make you more likely to have other conditions that cause symptoms.
  • I’m sure there are other symptoms I have forgotten to mention.

7. Why are skin and GI symptoms so common?

  • The skin has a lot of mast cells relative to other tissues. Your skin also comes into contact with lots of things in the environment. Think about the things your skin touches on a daily basis! It makes sense that it would get the exposure so skin symptoms can be common. Additionally, some of the chemicals mast cells release can cause fluid to become trapped in the skin. For these reasons, symptoms affecting the skin are pretty common.
  • The GI tract also has a lot of mast cells relative to other tissues. Your GI tract also comes in contact with lots of things in the environment. Let’s think about this for a minute. Your GI tract is essentially one long tube through your body. You put things from the environment in your GI tract at the top and they come back out the bottom of the tract. In a way, your GI tract is kind of like the outside of the inside of your body.
  • This is the analogy I learned in anatomy and physiology class to visualizing the GI tract as the outside of the inside of the body. Think of the body as a donut. (A low histamine, fully allergy friendly, requires no GI motility, wonderful donut.) Now think of the GI tract as the donut hole. You can put your finger through the hole in the middle of the donut. Only that center part of the donut will touch your finger. This is kind of like putting food throughout the GI tract. That food only touches a very small part of the body as it passes through.
  • Since what we put into our mouths (or other GI openings) is from the outside, your body has many mast cells in the GI tract to protect the body. Some of the chemicals mast cells release can cause fluid to become trapped in the layers of GI tissue. Some of the medications we take for mast cell disease can affect the GI tract. Some of them change how much acid we make in our stomachs. Some of them slow down the GI tract. A few of them speed it up or make the GI tract more fragile. For these reasons, symptoms affecting the GI tract are very common.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

The Provider Primer Series: Management of mast cell mediator symptoms and release

The Provider Primer Series: Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS)

The Provider Primer Series: Cutaneous Mastocytosis/ Mastocytosis in the Skin

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (ISM, SSM, ASM)

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (SM-AHD, MCL, MCS)

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 2

I have answered the 107 questions I have been asked most in the last four years. No jargon. No terminology. Just answers.

3. What causes mast cell disease?

  • The cause of mast cell disease is not yet definitively known.
  • As mentioned yesterday, when the body makes too many copies of a broken cell, those cells are called ‘clonal’ cells. In clonal forms of mast cell disease, the bone marrow makes too many mast cells. Those mast cells also don’t work correctly. Examples of clonal mast cell diseases are systemic mastocytosis and cutaneous mastocytosis.
  • Patients with systemic mastocytosis often have a specific genetic mutation called the CKIT D816V mutation. About 80-90% of systemic mastocytosis patients have this mutation. This mutation is in mast cells and it tells the mast cells to stay alive WAY longer than they should. And mast cells already live for months or years, a very long time for cells to live in the body. So patients with this mutation can end up with way too many broken mast cells.
  • Despite the fact that we know that many patients have this mutation, we do not say that this mutation CAUSES the disease. The reason for this is that sometimes, mast cell patients don’t have the mutation when they get sick but they develop it later. Sometimes, mast cell patients have the mutation and then lose it later. So we are still looking for something that causes the disease.
  • Patients with non-clonal mast cell disease do not have a single major mutation like the CKIT D816V mutation. This makes it harder to diagnose. Researchers have found that many times, patients with MCAS DO have mutations similar to the ones systemic mastocytosis patients do. But the MCAS patients often have different mutations from each other. That’s why it’s not helpful yet for diagnosis.
  • Despite the fact that the mutations described here are not considered to be heritable, there is more and more evidence that mast cell disease can happen to many people in the same family. See the next question for more details.

4. Is mast cell disease heritable?

  • Mast cell disease often affects multiple members of the same family. Importantly, patients often have a different type of mast cell disease than their relatives. This implies that mast cell disease is more of a spectrum rather than several different diseases.
  • A survey found that 74% of mast cell patients interviewed reported at least one first degree relative that had mast cell disease. This same study found that 46% of those patients had mast cell disease that affected more than just their skin. This is called systemic disease.
  • The CKIT D816V mutation is the mutation most strongly associated with clonal mast cell disease. The CKIT D816V mutation is NOT heritable.
  • There are very rare instances of other heritable mutations in families that have mast cell disease. The significance of this is not clear.

5. Can mast cell disease be cured?

  • Generally speaking, there is no cure for mast cell disease.
  • Children who present with cutaneous mastocytosis sometimes grow out of their disease. Their lesions disappear. Their mast cell symptoms affecting the rest of the body may disappear. We do not know why this happens. It has been heavily researched with long term follow up of children with childhood mastocytosis (at least one paper followed them for 20 years).
  • Children with true systemic mastocytosis do not grow out of their disease.
  • There is not yet data on children with MCAS. Anecdotally, they do not seem to grow out of their disease like kids with cutaneous mastocytosis can. Importantly, this is just what it looks like to me. Again, there is no data.
  • People with adult onset mast cell disease have lifelong disease.
  • There is one notable exception to this scenario. There are reports of curing mast cell disease following hematopoietic stem cell transplant/bone marrow transplant.
  • Transplantation is EXTREMELY dangerous. The transplant is MUCH, MUCH more dangerous than mast cell disease. Many people do not survive the protocol necessary to prepare for transplant. Many die from complications, or from a disease they acquired after their transplant.
  • Rarely, people may have malignant forms of mast cell disease, aggressive systemic mastocytosis (ASM) or mast cell leukemia (MCL). A few patients with these diseases have tried transplants after everything else failed. While some did see improvement after transplant, no one has survived more than a few years.
  • Conversely, sometimes people with mast cell disease have these transplants for other reasons, like having another blood cancer or bone marrow disease that requires transplant. In this group of people, some see drastic improvement of their mast cell disease. Some see a full remission of mast cell disease. Some do not get any improvement. These findings are pretty recent so it’s hard to be more specific.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

The Provider Primer Series: Introduction to Mast Cells

The Provider Primer Series: Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS)

The Provider Primer Series: Cutaneous Mastocytosis/ Mastocytosis in the Skin

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (ISM, SSM, ASM)

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (SM-AHD, MCL, MCS)

Mast cell disease in families

Heritable mutations in mastocytosis

The Devil’s Arithmetic

When I was in grad school, I took immunology. I still have my textbook and refer to it sometimes, my crowded notes in the margins. The chapter on allergy and anaphylaxis is highlighted in green, somehow aggressively bright after eleven years.

It’s kind of amusing to recall this time in my life, before every mast cell activation pathway had been hammered into my brain. There’s also some black humor in reading about how IgE activation is the allergy pathway. You know, THE allergy pathway. This book doesn’t cover any other pathways. As if you cannot possibly be allergic to something without IgE.

That’s the problem, of course. This is what most healthcare providers or science majors learn in school. They learn about allergy and anaphylaxis, but they learn about the textbook description which invariably refers to IgE mediated food anaphylaxis. They learn about peanut allergy.

I don’t have a peanut allergy. I literally don’t have a single food allergy that displays the hallmark swelling/closing airway that people expect. But I have major food allergies, some bad enough to require epinephrine, IV Benadryl, Pepcid, Solu Medrol, Zofran and IV fluids.

The problem is not just that I’m allergic to some foods. It’s that I’m not always allergic to the same foods as I was the day before. Or the same medications. Or the same environmental exposures. My reactions on a given day are the cumulative product of the amount of irritation my mast cells have experienced in the previous day or two. There is always a running tally in my mind.

There are a lot of analogies and models used to describe mast cell attacks both to patients and to people who don’t have them. I have always thought of it as a bank. You make deposits and you make withdrawals. Like this:

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume you have $100 in a bank account. Any activity that can cause mast cell activation has to be paid for. The cost is proportionate to the amount of activation. Getting a splinter: $2. Being hot: $10. Being in direct sunlight: $10. Standing up for 20 minutes while being hot in direct sunlight: $35. Cardiovascular exercise: $40. Arguing with your spouse: $60. Moderate pain experienced in your day to day life: $50. A painful medical procedure: $70. Mild cold: $40.

Some things are too costly to ever attempt.  Undercooked egg whites: $9000.  Massive bleach exposure: $7500.

You can make deposits into the bank with medications and physical changes. Getting enough sleep: $30. Wearing loose, comfortable clothes: $15. Doing orthostatic manuevers before standing up: $10. Taking baseline mast cell medications on your normal schedule: $50. Eating food that is warm but not hot: $15. Monitoring your exercise and stopping for breaks: $15. Wearing a cooling vest on a hot day: $20. Oral Benadryl: $25. IV Benadryl: $50. Steroids: $50.

So you have this running tally in your head all day long. When you start getting close to $100, you get stressed. You know you can’t afford to spend more than $100. Things that you could have done four hours ago safely are no longer safe. Things you could eat on a day spent relaxing at home inside with comfortable ambient temperature cannot be eaten if your apartment is too hot or if you are in a lot of pain.

You are constantly trying to avoid running out of dollars before you can get home and go to bed. Part of this is because you don’t want to trigger a physical reaction. Part of it is that this phenomenon – allergies as a function of circulating histamine/mast cell activation rather than IgE – is hard to explain briefly to people who don’t have this disease. So people will see you on a super crappy day only being able to eat one thing at a party and then four months later, when your body is much less inflamed, will see you eat three things at a party. And then it’s a thing, because these people invariably think that you are faking/being overdramatic as if somehow it is worth the effort to “pretend to have allergies.” WHO FUCKING DOES THAT?

Cost for being around someone who gives you shit for not always having the same restrictions: $75.

So everyday, you get $100. Except this is the US and our banks hate us so we have overdraft. This means that you can spend more money than you have but then they charge a steep fee and so the next day, you don’t have $100. You have maybe $30 dollars. After overspending, it can take a few days to get back to baseline.

Sometimes it’s worth it. Sometimes you can sort of game your body into getting more than $100 out of a day. This is the purpose of premedication for procedures and surgery. This is the purpose of good sleep hygiene, eating safe foods, not getting stressed, taking medications appropriately and on a schedule. You can bank a little. Not as much as you can overdraft, but you can get ahead a little bit.

Today, I went to the supermarket to grab some things for lunch at work. They didn’t have organic apples that looked in decent shape. They had non-organic apples and my safe peanut butter/honey and my safe pretzel chips. I had to run through my entire day to determine how much physical activity and stress was likely to be in the rest of my day to figure out what I could (probably) safely eat for lunch.

It’s like this all day, every day. This math wouldn’t be hard except that it’s constant and unavoidable and controls my life.

Mast cells in the GI tract: How many is too many? (Part eight)

One study assessed whether mast cell count would be influenced depending on which part of the organ biopsies were taken from. While the difference in count was not large, it is worth considering that these counts all straddle the cut off of 20 mast cells/hpf.  This means that patients with the same GI symptoms could have biopsies with over or under 20/hpf depending on the site of the biopsy.  See Table 24 for details.

Table 24: Effect of sampling site on mast cell count/hpf in colon of chronic diarrhea patients
Zare-Mirzaie A, et al. Analysis of colonic mucosa mast cell count in patients with chronic diarrhea. Saudi J Gastroenterol 2012; 18 (5): 322-326.
Microscopy method: 400x magnification, mast cells counted in 5 hpf and averaged
Visualization: Tryptase (IHC), toluidine blue
Rectum Sigmoid Descending colon Transverse colon Ascending colon Cecum
20.5±5 18.3±3.5 22.6±3.9 20.7±4.9 25.5±6.7 22.1±4.9

 

The same paper also looked at effect of season on mast cell count.  There was no significant difference, but again, the range of biopsies in each season straddles the 20/hpf line. See Table 25 for details.

Table 25: Effect of season on mast cell count in colon of diarrhea patients
Zare-Mirzaie A, et al. Analysis of colonic mucosa mast cell count in patients with chronic diarrhea. Saudi J Gastroenterol 2012; 18 (5): 322-326.
Microscopy method: 400x magnification, mast cells counted in 5 hpf and averaged
Visualization: Tryptase (IHC), toluidine blue
Spring Summer Fall Winter
20.6±4.7 24.2±4.9 19.5±3.9 20.3±4.9

 

The most telling portion of this study compared mast cell counts when using a simple stain (toluidine blue) and when using IHC (antibody for tryptase) to find mast cells in biopsies.  Mast cells are not easy to see on biopsy.  They require special stains, and even then, they are hard to see.  Immunohistochemistry (IHC) uses antibodies to identify markers on cells that are easier to see with a microscope.  It is not uncommon for unfamiliar doctors to refuse the use of IHC testing (which usually includes CD117, CD25, CD2 or tryptase) in lieu of commonly available stains in the lab.  However, even stains that visualize mast cells are inferior to IHC methods.  In biopsies taken from all parts of the colon, toluidine blue staining showed less than half of the mast cells visualized using IHC for tryptase.  This means that when IHC testing isn’t ordered, counts reported by simple staining are much lower than the true count. See Table 26 for details.

Table 26: Comparison of mast cell count in biopsies stained with toluidine blue and with tryptase antibody (IHC)
Zare-Mirzaie A, et al. Analysis of colonic mucosa mast cell count in patients with chronic diarrhea. Saudi J Gastroenterol 2012; 18 (5): 322-326.
Microscopy method: 400x magnification, mast cells counted in 5 hpf and averaged
Visualization: Tryptase (IHC) and toluidine blue
Staining method Rectum Sigmoid Descending colon Transverse colon Ascending colon Cecum
IHC 20.5±5 18.3±3.5 22.6±3.9 20.7±4.9 25.5±6.7 22.1±4.9
Toluidine blue 8.5±0.7 6.8±1.2 10.3±4.2 10.3±3.5 12.5±5 8.1±2.9
% of cells identified by IHC seen by toluidine blue staining 41% 37% 46% 50% 49% 37%

 

There are other factors that contribute to lack of consensus in mast cell counts in GI tissue. One of the biggest causes is that not all labs use standard size high powered fields.  HPF is usually 0.25mm2, but it is not uniform throughout the research world.  Many papers don’t even provide the size of their high powered fields.  More than that, many papers report mast counts per mm2 without providing conversion factors so it’s not always possible to compare results from one paper to another.  There were some papers I wanted to use for this series that I couldn’t because I couldn’t be sure that I could convert their mast cells/mm2 confidently to mast cells/hpf.

Together with the fact that number of hpf counted, methods of biopsy slide preparation, stains and IHC antibodies are variable, it is hard to get a real understanding of whether the cut off of 20 mast cells/hpf is meaningful.  It is my finding that there are a number of conditions that cause mast cells/hpf to be higher than controls in an experiment.  It is also my finding that in some experiments, control subjects have baseline mast cell counts over 20 mast cells/hpf. It is reasonable to assume that inflammatory GI conditions can cause mast cell hyperplasia.  But the fact that chronic urticaria patients often have mast cell counts higher than control subjects is also telling.  It speaks to the fact that an allergic process can elevate mast cell counts in a space where there is no appreciable symptomology. If patients have reactions to “pseudoallergens” as described in that paper, then it is possible that these reactions could drive the increase in mast cell count in the GI tract.  If this is true, then the many mast cell patients who have “pseudoallergen” responses could see an increase in GI mast cell burden as a result of their mast cell disease.

References:

Jakate S, et al. Mastocytic enterocolitis: Increased mucosal mast cells in chronic intractable diarrhea.  Arch Pathol Lab Med 2006; 130 (3): 362-367.

Akhavein AM, et al. Allergic mastocytic gastroenteritis and colitis: An unexplained etiology in chronic abdominal pain and gastrointestinal dysmotility. Gastroenterology Research and Practice (2012): Article ID 950582.

Martinez C, et al. Diarrhoea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome: an organic disorder with structural abnormalities in the jejunal epithelial barrier. Gut 2013; 62: 1160-1168,

Sethi A, et al. Performing colonic mast cell counts in patients with chronic diarrhea of unknown etiology has limited diagnostic use. Arch Pathol Lab Med 2015; 139 (2): 225-232.

Doyle LA, et al. A clinicopathologic study of 24 cases of systemic mastocytosis involving the gastrointestinal tract and assessment of mucosal mast cell density in irritable bowel syndrome and asymptomatic patients. Am J Surg Pathol 2014; 38 (6): 832-843.

Ramsay DB, et al. Mast cells in gastrointestinal disease. Gastroenterology & Hepatology 2010; 6 (12): 772-777.

Zare-Mirzaie A, et al. Analysis of colonic mucosa mast cell count in patients with chronic diarrhea. Saudi J Gatroenterol 2012; 18 (5): 322-326.

Walker MM, et al. Duodenal mastocytosis, eosinophilia and intraepithelial lymphocytosis as possible disease markers in the irritable bowel syndrome and functional dyspepsia. Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2009; 29 (7): 765-773.

Hahn HP, Hornick JL. Immunoreactivity for CD25 in Gastrointestinal Mucosal Mast Cells is Specific for Systemic Mastocytosis. American Journal of Surgical Pathology 2007; 31(11): 1669-1676.

Vivinus-Nebot M, et al. Functional bowel symptoms in quiescent inflammatory bowel diseases : role of epithelial barrier disruption and low-grade inflammation. Gut 2014; 63: 744-752.

Minnei F, et al. Chronic urticaria is associated with mast cell infiltration in the gastroduodenal mucosa. Virchows Arch 2006; 448(3): 262-8.

Hamilton MJ, et al. Mast cell activation syndrome: A newly recognized disorder with systemic clinical manifestations. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2011; 128: 147-152.

Barbara G, et al. Activated mast cells in proximity to colonic nerves correlate with abdominal pain in irritable bowel syndrome. Gastroenterology 2004; 126(3): 693-702.

Guilarte M, et al. Diarrhoea-predominant IBS patients show mast cell activation and hyperplasia in the jejunum. Gut 2007; 56: 203-209.

Dunlop SP, et al.  Age related decline in rectal mucosal lymphocytes and mast cells. European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology 2004; 16(10): 1011-1015.

Afrin LB, Molderings GJ. A concise, practical guide to diagnostic assessment for mast cell activation disease. World J Hematol 2014; 3 (1): 1-17.

Molderings GJ, et al. Mast cell activation disease: a concise, practical guide to diagnostic workup and therapeutic options. J Hematol Oncol 2011; 4 (10).

Akin C, et al. Mast cell activation syndrome: proposed diagnostic criteria. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2010; 126 (6): 1099-1104.

Valent P, et al. Definitions, criteria and global classification of mast cell disorders with special reference to mast cell activation syndromes: a consensus proposal. Int Arch Allergy Immunol 2012: 157 (3): 215-225.

Just before waking

For most of my life, I have seen things in that creeping inertia toward sleep. Figures made of vibrating inkiness would move towards me until I screamed and jumped in the moment before we touched. I would shake my head from side to side and rub my eyes like an incredulous cartoon character while my pounding heart slowed.

The shapes I saw never existed outside of that thin slip of time that bounded waking from sleep, but logic is not enough. It didn’t matter that I knew that these were hallucinations. The panic was real.

From the moment I decided to visit China, I was panicking. I fretted about bringing medications, transporting IV bags, getting medical notes, dealing with the airline, the weather. Everything was a variable I could not control. The mental invention I could muster to frame worst case scenarios was impressive. Every obstacle brought fresh waves of anxiety until I believed I may never get there. I worried and worried and worried.

By the day I was set to fly to China, my fear had reached fever pitch. What if the airline staff wouldn’t let me carry my supplies onboard? What if I need an epipen? What if my port clots off? What if I can’t reaccess my port? What if all my IV bags pop? What if I have a severe reaction during the sixteen hour flight?

I had actual nightmares that I would arrive in China to discover all of my medication bottles were empty. In the half slumber just before waking, vignettes of my illness destroying this trip paraded before my eyes.

Late on November 2, I went to Logan Airport with my new matching luggage and checked in for my flight to Hong Kong. As anticipated, there was some trouble with getting approval to bring my critical supplies and meds as my carry-on luggage. Lots of calling supervisors and discussions. At last, a supervisor walked over to us. In his hand was the printout summarizing my health conditions and necessary accommodations. I could bring this small piece of luggage onboard with me.

Things went much better from that point. A wheelchair was brought to transport me to the gate. TSA gave me no trouble. I boarded the plane first to get medicated and settled. A flight attendant came over, holding a copy of my medical approval form.

“It says you have ‘mas-to-cy-tro-sis’, this is right?” she asked warmly.

“Yes, that’s me,” I said, fighting with my infusion pump.

“This word does not mean anything to me. How can we help you during this flight?”

“I’m fine, I can handle everything myself.” And I was fine and I could handle everything myself. I manage my disease everyday. There was never anything to fear.

After we took off, I laid back and fell asleep for nine hours. I flew over the North Pole and landed in Hong Kong without any trouble.

I have been in Hong Kong for five days. I am very tired. I am very sore from the flight. I am reacting mildly. It is hot and hazy here, the air like droplets of lead weighing everything down. I can eat almost nothing that wasn’t prepared at the house and need to nap every afternoon on top of sleeping 10-12 hours a night.

But I am here. I made it to Asia. I have seen the Star Ferry and the Peak, the bustling central area and the sun blazing through the fog over the South China Sea.

The nightmare is not that I would be sick in China because I am sick and will always be sick and being in China won’t change that. The nightmare is that I would wait so long to be “healthy” that I would never experience the blinding joy of going to the other side of the world. The nightmare is that my disease would prevent me from living a life of wonder and meaning.

You don’t need a good reason to pursue your dreams. It doesn’t have to be logical or convenient. You don’t need a plan. You just need to decide that you want things to be different and believe that they can be.

In a season when it feels like I have lost so much, I can no longer be controlled by these nightmares. And even when I’m queasy and sore, I am happy in those quiet moments just before waking.