The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 73

86. What is the role of the spleen in systemic mastocytosis? (Part Two)

  • The spleen is basically a big filter for the blood. In the previous post, I mentioned one of its functions: to catch certain types of infections in the blood that your immune system has a hard time fighting in other ways.  It does some other things, too. The spleen stores red blood cells and platelets so that your body has a backup supply in case of hemorrhage or trauma.
  • The spleen also looks for something else when it filters the blood: damaged or abnormal blood cells. Damaged or abnormal blood cells get caught in the spleen so that they don’t continue to circulate in the blood. The spleen then breaks down those bad cells and uses materials from them to help make new healthy cells.
  • If there are lots of abnormal cells, then the spleen gets swollen because it is holding many more cells than usual. This is why the spleen swells in diseases where the body has abnormal cells in the blood stream. How much the spleen swells is directly proportional to the amount of abnormal cells in the blood.
  • For example, in acute leukemias, there are tons of abnormal cells circulating in the bloodstream. The spleen catches as many as they can. Because there are a lot, the spleen swells very quickly. In chronic leukemias, there are still abnormal cells, but they are produced at a much slower rate over time. This means that the spleen has more time to break down the broken blood cells it catches before it catches more of them. In these scenarios, the spleen swells more slowly over a longer period of time.
  • You can apply this understanding directly to mastocytosis. Patients with indolent systemic mastocytosis have fewer mast cells than those with smoldering or aggressive systemic mastocytosis, or mast cell leukemia. The patients with indolent systemic mastocytosis make some abnormal mast cells. The spleen will catch the ones it sees and remove them from the bloodstream. But mast cells don’t live in the blood and they only pass through the bloodstream for a short time. So the spleen has time to break down some mast cells before it catches more.
  • When a patient with indolent systemic mastocytosis starts to produce higher numbers of mast cells, that’s when you see the spleen starting to swell. That’s why spleen swelling is a B finding for systemic mastocytosis – it is an indicator that the body is making more mast cells than before, and could be headed toward a more aggressive form.
  • The number getting filtered out by the spleen increases so the spleen swells. The more abnormal mast cells produced, the more the spleen swells.
  • Additionally, when the bone marrow is making lots of aberrant mast cells, they are introduced into the blood stream in much larger numbers than normal. This means that they are more likely to get caught in the spleen than in a person with indolent systemic mastocytosis.
  • In smoldering systemic mastocytosis, the body makes more mast cells than in indolent systemic mastocytosis, so it’s more common for the spleen to swell. In aggressive systemic mastocytosis, the bone marrow is producing a lot of mast cells and many of them are caught in the spleen over a short period of time. In mast cell leukemia, even more are made and caught, so the spleen becomes clogged up very quickly.
  • When the spleen is swollen from catching bad mast cells, the swelling causes it to break or damage other, healthy blood cells, too. This happens because the swelling of the spleen pinches the pathway for cells through the spleen so the other cells have to squeeze through, causing them to break. This is why patients with more advanced forms of systemic mastocytosis like smoldering systemic mastocytosis, aggressive systemic mastocytosis, and mast cell leukemia are more likely to have low blood cell counts than people with indolent systemic mastocytosis.
  • In addition to the risk of low blood cell counts, the swelling and dysfunction of the spleen can also contribute to portal hypertension. This is when there is high pressure in the blood vessel system that connects the GI tract, the pancreas, the spleen and the liver.
  • Portal hypertension is also a C finding for aggressive systemic mastocytosis. This means that a person who has this because of mastocytosis receives a diagnosis of aggressive systemic mastocytosis.
  • Portal hypertension can affect liver function and can cause fluid that should be in the liver to end up in the general abdominal space, a condition called ascites.
  • Splenic swelling often causes no symptoms. It is unusual for it to cause pain in the general area of the spleen. Left shoulder pain sometimes occurs if the spleen is very swollen.
  • The general rule of thumb is that the spleen has to be twice its normal size for it to be felt on a physical exam. The exact amount of swelling is usually measured by an ultrasound.
  • Spleen swelling does not usually require treatment. Generally, unless there is hypersplenism, it is not treated.
  • The treatment for hypersplenism is splenectomy, surgical removal of the spleen. The spleen is removed mainly for two reasons: to decrease portal hypertension, thereby reducing stress on the liver; and to prevent the spleen from rupturing, which can cause fatal hemorrhage.

This question was answered in two parts. Please see the previous post for more information.

For additional reading, please visit the following posts:

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

The Provider Primer Series: Natural history of SM-AHD, MCL and MCS

Mast cell disease and the spleen

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 72

86. What is the role of the spleen in systemic mastocytosis? (Part One)

  • The spleen is basically a big filter for the blood. It is supposed to catch certain types of infections in the blood that your immune system has a hard time fighting in other ways.
  • When the spleen is swollen but still functions pretty well, it is called splenomegaly.
  • Swelling of the spleen is not uncommon in systemic mastocytosis. Splenomegaly is most often seen in patients with smoldering systemic mastocytosis, aggressive systemic mastocytosis, and mast cell leukemia, but sometimes patients with indolent systemic mastocytosis have swelling of the spleen.
  • When the spleen swells, the pathway for the blood going through the filter gets pinched. Blood goes in but has to pass through a narrow exit route to get out of the spleen. The more swollen the spleen is, the narrower the pathway for the blood to get through the spleen. This means that cells can be damaged or broken open if the spleen is swollen.
  • How much this happens depends upon how swollen the spleen is. If it is only a little swollen, the change in blood cell counts can be minimal.
  • For systemic mastocytosis, a swollen spleen that works well (splenomegaly) is what is called a B finding. A B finding is a way to tell if a patient’s indolent systemic mastocytosis is moving to a more serious form, like smoldering systemic mastocytosis or aggressive systemic mastocytosis. If a patient has a B finding, they are monitored more closely to look for other clues that could mean the disease is progressing.
  • Please note that the B finding MUST be caused by the mastocytosis to count. For example, if an SM patient falls off their bike and injures their spleen, causing it to swell, this is not a B finding. If the mastocytosis didn’t cause the problem, it doesn’t count.
  • Mast cell patients who have a spleen that is swollen but works correctly don’t damage too many blood cells. This means blood counts are often normal in this situation. If blood cell counts are not normal, the spleen is not the cause.
  • Some patients with aggressive systemic mastocytosis and mast cell leukemia develop a condition called hypersplenism. Hypersplenism basically means the spleen is working way too hard. Hypersplenism is a C finding, a marker that indicates that a patient’s mastocytosis has become very aggressive. If a patient has a C finding, they are diagnosed with aggressive systemic mastocytosis (ASM).
  • Sometimes patients with mast cell leukemia have hypersplenism. However, there are stringent criteria for diagnosing mast cell leukemia. Just having a C finding isn’t enough for a diagnosis of mast cell leukemia, while just having a C finding IS enough for a diagnosis of aggressive systemic mastocytosis.
  • Having a C finding is not a defining feature of mast cell leukemia the way it is for aggressive systemic mastocytosis.
  • Some patients with systemic mastocytosis have another blood disorder that causes the bone marrow to make too many cells. This is cleverly named systemic mastocytosis with associated hematologic disorder (SM-AHD). People with SM-AHD can have any stage of systemic mastocytosis. If they have another blood disorder, they are categorized as having SM-AHD even if they have aggressive systemic mastocytosis or smoldering systemic mastocytosis. So a person with SM-AHD can have any type of systemic mastocytosis, including aggressive systemic mastocytosis.
  • Sometimes patients with systemic mastocytosis alongside another blood disorder (called SM-AHD) have hypersplenism. Here, the hypersplenism could be caused by one of two conditions: systemic mastocytosis, or the other blood disorder. If the mastocytosis causes the spleen issue, the patient gets a diagnosis of aggressive systemic mastocytosis just like any systemic mastocytosis patient. If the other blood disorder is what causes the hypersplenism, the patient does not get a diagnosis of aggressive systemic mastocytosis.
  • If the mastocytosis causes the spleen issue, then we know that this is a C finding, a marker for aggressive systemic mastocytosis. If the other blood disorder is what causes the hypersplenism, it is not a C finding and does not indicate aggressive systemic mastocytosis.
  • Please note that having a C finding is not a defining feature of SM-AHD the way it is for aggressive systemic mastocytosis.
  • Hypersplenism sometimes occurs in patients with SM-AHD. It could be caused by either the systemic mastocytosis or the other blood disorder. It can be trickier to figure out exactly what is causing the splenic issues.
  • If the mastocytosis causes the spleen issue, then we know that this is a C finding, a marker for aggressive systemic mastocytosis. If the other blood disorder is what causes the hypersplenism, it is not a C finding and does not indicate aggressive systemic mastocytosis.
  • Please note that having a C finding is not a defining feature of SM-AHD the way it is for aggressive systemic mastocytosis.
  • You can tell that a person has hypersplenism by looking at four things:
    1. Low counts of certain blood cells in the blood. Red blood cells, platelets, and some white blood cells can be low because of hypersplenism. The white blood cells that are low when a person is hypersplenic are eosinophils, neutrophils, and basophils. These cells all have granules full of chemicals like mast cells do.
    2. The bone marrow trying to make extra blood cells to make up for the ones that being destroyed by the spleen.
    3. Swelling of the spleen.
    4. The expectation that if the spleen is removed, the blood cell counts will go up and the bone marrow will start making normal amounts of blood cells again.

This question was answered in two parts. Please see the following post for more information.

For additional reading, please visit the following posts:

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

The Provider Primer Series: Natural history of SM-AHD, MCL and MCS

Mast cell disease and the spleen

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 61

75. What other diseases and disorders are commonly associated with mast cell disease?

I often joke that it would be easier to list what conditions are not commonly associated with mast cell disease because so many conditions occur alongside it. However, there are some conditions that you see a lot in the mast cell population relative to others. In every instance, mast cell disease has the potential to irritate the other condition and vice verse.

Clonal hematologic disorders. Systemic mastocytosis is so frequently accompanied by other blood disorders that it has a diagnosis specifically for this phenomenon: systemic mastocytosis with associated hematologic disorder (SM-AHD). It is estimated that up to 40% of patients with SM eventually develop another clonal hematologic disorder. A clonal hematologic disorder is a condition in which your bone marrow makes too many blood cells. Examples include chronic myelogenous leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, polycythemia vera, myelofibrosis, and essential thrombocythemia.

Unlike mastocytosis, MCAS can occur secondarily to lots of conditions. In some instances, it’s not clear if the MCAS is secondary to a condition or the condition is secondary to MCAS or neither.

Heritable connective tissue diseases. Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS), is the most common connective tissue disease in the mast cell population. There are multiple types of EDS. While hypermobility type EDS (formerly called Type III) is the most common in MCAS patients, other forms occur also. Other connective tissue diseases seen in mast cell patients include Marfan Syndrome and Loeys-Dietz Syndrome.

Dysautonomia. Dysautonomia is a condition in which your body’s autonomic nervous system doesn’t regulate essential bodily functions correctly. POTS is the most common form of dysautonomia found in mast cell patients but other forms occur, too.

Mast cell patients commonly have MCAS, EDS and POTS together. They cooccur so commonly that some experts think that that this presentation is actually one overarching disease rather than three separate ones affecting mast cell patients.

Eosinophilic GI disease. Mast cells are closely related to eosinophils. They activate eosinophils and eosinophils activate them. Mast cell patients sometimes have eosinophil GI disease where eosinophils activate to lots of triggers and damage the GI tract.

Immunodeficiency. Conditions that specifically impair a person’s immunity, especially those that affect T or B cells, like SCID or CVID, are not unusual in mast cell patients.

Gastrointestinal disease. Mast cells normally live in the GI tract so they are very sensitive to GI inflammation. MCAS can occur secondarily to lots of GI diseases. Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome are examples. GI disorders that specifically affect motility are also seen in mast cell disease, like gastroparesis and chronic intestinal pseudoobstruction.

Allergies. Some mast cell patients have true IgE allergies or other allergic disorders like atopic dermatitis.

Autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disease is more common in MCAS patients than in SM patients. The specific disorder could be virtually any autoimmune condition, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, autoimmune urticaria, and many others.

Adrenal insufficiency. The body’s mechanisms for produce stress hormones like cortisol can become dysregulated in mast cell patients. This results in a situation in which the body does not make enough steroids of its own to take care of the body during periods of stress. Patients with adrenal insufficiency are dependent upon daily steroids to stay safe.

Chiari malformation. This condition affects the space around a person’s brainstem, causing a wide array of symptoms. Some patients have surgery for this condition.

Asthma. It is difficult to draw an exact line where mast cell disease ends and asthma begins in mast cell patients as the symptoms can be virtually identical.

This list is not exhaustive. Many other conditions sometimes occur in mast cell patients.

For additional reading, please visit the following posts:
The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 31
The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 32

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 26

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

34. What are the differences between the forms of systemic mastocytosis?

Indolent systemic mastocytosis

  • A form of SM in which the amount of mast cells produced in the bone marrow is excessive but not inherently dangerous to organ function.
  • Mast cells produced in the bone marrow are damaged.
  • These mast cells are released into the blood. While there are more mast cells than usual, there are not enough to overwhelm the blood.
  • There are fewer mast cells than in mast cell leukemia. There are often fewer mast cells than aggressive systemic mastocytosis or smoldering systemic mastocytosis.
  • The mast cells leave the blood and may enter organs inappropriately. Some patients do not have signs of too many mast cells being in an organ other than bone marrow.
  • The presence of mast cells in organ tissue can cause symptoms and medical signs but is not inherently dangerous to organ function.
  • It is not unusual for ISM patients to have typical mast cell symptoms and complications like anaphylaxis.
  • The lifespan for ISM is normal.
  • In indolent systemic mastocytosis, patients die from progressing to a more aggressive form of SM, such as MCL, ASM or SM-AHD.
  • Fatal anaphylaxis is always a risk with mast cell disease.

Smoldering systemic mastocytosis

  • A form of SM in which the amount of mast cells produced in the bone marrow is increasing to the point at which it might cause organ damage.
  • Mast cells produced in the bone marrow are damaged.
  • These mast cells are released into the blood. There are fewer mast cells than in mast cell leukemia. There are often fewer mast cells than aggressive systemic mastocytosis.
  • Mast cells leave the blood and enter organs in larger numbers than is normal. The presence of mast cells in these organs can cause symptoms and medical signs, like swelling of the liver.
  • Organ dysfunction can sometimes be corrected with surgery or certain medications.
  • It is not unusual for SSM patients to have typical mast cell symptoms and complications like anaphylaxis.
  • The lifespan for SSM is widely variable. One well known paper published survival of around ten years. However, many of the patients in this study were over 60 and age may have affected the average survival found in this group.
  • Patients with smoldering systemic mastocytosis are monitored to look for signs of significant organ dysfunction.
  • People with this diagnosis are considered to be possibly transitioning to a more serious form of systemic mastocytosis.
  • Smoldering systemic mastocytosis is the diagnosis that occurs between aggressive systemic mastocytosis and indolent systemic mastocytosis. It is thought of as the stage crossed when a patient with indolent systemic mastocytosis progresses to having aggressive systemic mastocytosis or mast cell leukemia.
  • In smoldering systemic mastocytosis, patients die from progressing to a more aggressive form of SM, such as MCL, ASM or SM-AHD.
  • Fatal anaphylaxis is always a risk with mast cell disease.

Aggressive systemic mastocytosis

  • A dangerous form of SM in which your bone marrow makes way too many damaged mast cells.
  • These mast cells are released into the blood. There are fewer mast cells than in the blood than in mast cell leukemia.
  • The mast cells leave the blood and go into various organs.
  • The presence and activation of the mast cells in the organs can affect organ function.
  • Over time, the presence and activation of mast cells in the organs can cause organ failure. This can sometimes be corrected with surgery or certain medications.
  • Typical mast cell mediator symptoms and complications like anaphylaxis are less common than in less serious types of SM.
  • The lifespan for ASM is much shorter than normal but is dependent upon response to treatment and which organs are involved. Older papers reference an average of 41 month survival but this has changed with more recent treatment options.
  • Generally, people with ASM live longer than those with MCL.
  • In aggressive systemic mastocytosis, patients die from the organ damage that has accrued over time by the presence and activation of mast cells in places they don’t belong.
  • Fatal anaphylaxis is always a risk with mast cell disease.

Mast cell leukemia

  • A very dangerous form of SM in which your bone marrow makes massive amounts of damaged mast cells.
  • These mast cells are released into the blood in overwhelming numbers.
  • The mast cells leave the blood and end up in various organs.
  • Specifically because of how many mast cells are present, mast cells invading the organs break up the organ tissue and cause severe organ damage.
  • The organ damage leads to organ failure, which leads to death.
  • Typical mast cell mediator symptoms and complications like anaphylaxis are less common than in less serious types of SM.
  • The lifespan for MCL is much shorter than normal.
  • Lifespan for MCL is usually quoted as being in the range of 6-18 months. However, there are more recent reports of some patients living 4+ years.
  • In mast cell leukemia, patients die from the organ damage caused by large amounts of mast cells entering and breaking up organ tissue.
  • Fatal anaphylaxis is always a risk with mast cell disease.
  • Of note, there is a newly described chronic form of mast cell leukemia. In this form, patients have stable mast cell disease despite having an overwhelming amount of mast cells in their bodies. The reason for this is unclear and long term survival is not yet known.

Systemic mastocytosis with associated hematologic disease

  • A form of SM in which the patient also has a separate blood disorder that produces too many cells of a different kind.
  • A patient with systemic mastocytosis with associated hematologic disease has too many mast cells and too many blood cells of a different kind. 
  • Previously called SM-AHNMD, systemic mastocytosis with associated clonal hematologic non mast cell lineage disease.
  • The two blood disorders, SM and the other disorder, are treated separately the same way they would be if the patient only had one or the other.
  • The lifespan for SM-AHD is wildly variable as it depends both on which type of SM the patient has as well as the type and severity of the other blood disorder.
  • An important thing to remember is if a patient has SM and another blood disorder that produces too many cells, they are classified as SM-AHD regardless of the type of SM they have. For example, if a patient who has ISM (normal lifespan) also has chronic myelogenous leukemia, they have SM-AHD. However, if the patient has ASM (shortened lifespan) and chronicle myelogenous leukemia, they still have SM-AHD even though the prognosis changes considerably.
  • In SM-AHD, patients die from having an aggressive form of SM, such as MCL or ASM, or as a result of their other blood disorder.
  • Fatal anaphylaxis is always a risk with mast cell disease.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:
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)

MCAD, MCAS and the hierarchy of mast cell disease classifications

I have seen several posts recently expressing confusion about various mast cell diagnoses so I figured I would put up a post to clear things up.
Mast cell activation disorder (MCAD) is a catch-all term for mast cell disease (MCD.)  MCAD and MCD can be used interchangeably.  So if you have any mast cell disease, you have MCAD.  If you have SM, you have MCAD, because SM is a type of MCAD.  If you have UP, you have MCAD, and so on.  MCAD is an umbrella term.  It is non-specific.  It is similar to being told that you have heart disease when you have mitral valve prolapse.  It is true, but it is not precise enough to give all information needed to treat effectively.
Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) is the diagnosis you get if you do not meet the criteria for any of the defined mast cell diseases, but have mast cell mediator related symptoms.  You cannot have MCAS and another mast cell disease because, by its definition, MCAS is ONLY diagnosed if you do NOT meet the criteria for any other mast cell disease.  You cannot have UP and MCAS.  You cannot have SM and MCAS.  I think some people think that MCAS means you have mediator related symptoms.  This is not the case.  You can have mediator related symptoms with pretty much any mast cell disease. 
A paper was published a few years ago by a doctor who considers mast cell activation symptoms to be due exclusively to proliferation (like in SM.)  He wrote a paper that says that MCAS is found in people with SM.  This paper sort of confused the issue for a lot of people.  However, the mast cell community (including researchers and prominent doctors) do not consider this to be the case.  They agree that you cannot have SM and MCAS.
Also confusing is the fact that mast cell activation (MCA) is NOT the same as MCAS.  MCA just means that your mast cells are activated, which occurs in any mast cell disease.  MCA is not a diagnosis, it is a symptom.  So you can have MCA in SM.  But you still can’t have MCAS in SM.
So if you have SM and have lots of mediator related symptoms, you have SM.  If you want to speak broadly, you have SM.
If you test negative for SM and have no CM, but have mast cell symptoms and elevated mast cell markers, you have MCAS. 
If you have UP and then later develop SM, you have SM with skin involvement, or SM with UP. 
If you have UP or TMEP and have lots of mediator related systemic symptoms, you do NOT have UP and MCAS.  You have UP.  UP and TMEP (forms of CM) can cause systemic symptoms.  But you cannot have MCAS because you can only have MCAS if you do not meet the criteria for another mast cell disease.
Let’s review.
If you have UP: you have UP, you have CM, you have MCAD.
If you have TMEP: you have TMEP, you have CM, you have MCAD.
If you have SM: you have SM, you have MCAD.
If you have SM with UP: you have SM with skin involvement, you have UP, you have MCAD.
If you have SM with TMEP: you have SM with skin involvement, you have TMEP, you have MCAD.
If you have SM-AHNMD: you have SM-AHNMD, you have MCAD.
If you have ASM: you have ASM, you have MCAD.
If you have MCL: you have MCL, you have MCAD.

If you have MCAS: you have MCAD.

Reference:
Molderings GJ, Brettner S, Homann J, Afrin LB. Mast cell activation disease: a concise practical guide for diagnostic workup and therapeutic options. J. Hematol. Oncol.2011; 4:10-17.