The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 83

96. Why are cancer drugs used to treat mast cell disease?

Disclaimer: The following post was written by me in my capacity as a subject matter expert in mast cell disease and author of MastAttack. This is not work product of my position as a Senior Scientist for a large research organization. All below statements are attributable directly to me in my role as author of MastAttack and are in no way attributable to my employer. Information presented here is publicly available and includes no confidential information learned in my capacity as a Senior Scientist for my employer.

  • There are a number of medications used to treat cancers that are also used to treat mast cell disease. Some of those medications are old school chemotherapies, some are newer, targeted chemotherapies, and some help to control the immune system.
  • In mastocytosis, the body makes too many mast cells. If the bone marrow makes way, way too many mast cells, and those mast cells don’t function correctly, the mast cells can act like cancer cells. This can cause the mastocytosis to behave like cancer.
  • Systemic mastocytosis has several subtypes. The least serious forms do not act like cancer.
  • Indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM) is the least severe form of systemic mastocytosis. ISM has a normal lifespan. While patients with ISM are at risk of dying for anaphylaxis, an important distinction is that patients with ISM do not die because the mast cell disease acts like a cancer. ISM does not act like cancer.
  • Smoldering systemic mastocytosis (SSM) is a moderately serious form of systemic mastocytosis. SSM can shorten lifespan. In SSM, the body is starting to make lots more mast cells than it should. Those mast cells can affect how organs function. SSM acts like an early cancer.
  • SSM requires treatment to stop it from becoming a more serious form of mastocytosis called aggressive systemic mastocytosis (ASM) that acts like a serious cancer. The treatments used to manage SSM are also used in some cancer patients to help fight cancer. These include meds that affect your immune system, like interferon; newer targeted therapies and chemos, like tyrosine kinase inhibitors; and older chemo drugs, like cladribine.
  • Aggressive systemic mastocytosis (ASM) is a serious form of systemic mastocytosis. ASM shortens lifespan significantly. In ASM, the body makes way too many mast cells. The bone marrow churns out so many mast cells into the bloodstream and then the abnormal mast cells get stuffed into various organs. The mast cells cause organ damage and can cause organ failure. ASM is often referred to as being malignant because it behaves just like a cancer. It is also treated like a cancer.
  • As mentioned above, interferon is a therapy that can affect how the immune system works. Interferon is sometimes used for ASM but it is less commonly used in ASM than in SSM. ASM patients need more aggressive treatment. Newer targeted therapies like tyrosine kinase inhibitors and multitarget kinase inhibitors are frequently used in ASM. Some of these newer therapies are FDA approved for treating some ASM patients. Cladribine and hydroxyurea are still common treatments for ASM.
  • Mast cell leukemia (MCL) is the most serious form of systemic mastocytosis. MCL greatly reduces lifespan. MCL causes production of an unbelievable number of mast cells. There are so many mast cells that they cannot all get stuffed into organs like ASM. This means that while there are lots of mast cells in the organs in MCL patients, there are so many mast cells like that there are still tons of them in the bloodstream. This leads to rapid organ failure, leading to death. Mast cell leukemia is cancer. It is treated like cancer with newer therapies like tyrosine kinase inhibitors and multitarget kinase inhibitors, as well as hydroxyurea or cladribine in some cases. As in ASM, some of the newer therapies are FDA approved to treat mast cell leukemia.
  • Sometimes patients with systemic mastocytosis develop a second blood disorder. This is called systemic mastocytosis with associated hematologic disease. Sometimes this second blood disorder is a form of cancer, like chronic myeloid leukemia. In these instances, the other blood disorder would be treated using cancer medications.
  • Mast cell sarcoma (MCS) is a cancerous form of systemic mastocytosis. Patients with MCS rapidly develop MCL and are treated as described above.
  • None of the therapies I mentioned here are indicated for cutaneous mastocytosis. Cutaneous mastocytosis does not behave like a cancer and is not treated like one.
  • In recent years, two other forms of mast cell disease have been described: mast cell activation syndrome and monoclonal mast cell activation syndrome.
  • Monoclonal mast cell activation syndrome (MMAS) is often considered to be a “pre-SM”. It is treated like indolent systemic mastocytosis and does not behave like a cancer.
  • Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) is not know to be an early form of SM. Many people live with MCAS for decades without ever developing SM.
  • Despite the fact that mast cell activation syndrome, monoclonal mast cell activation syndrome, and indolent systemic mastocytosis do not behave like cancer, cancer therapies are sometimes used in these patients. They are used when other therapies have failed and their symptoms are still poorly controlled. Generally, they are used when persistent mast cell activation becomes life threatening. In some instances, they may be used when a patient’s symptoms are not life threatening but are very disabling and cause a poor quality of life. In these cases, the patient and their provider make the assessment that they are able to assume the risk of using these medications.
  • There is very little data on the use of chemo and targeted therapies in patients with MCAS, MMAS and ISM, and no cancer therapies are FDA approved for these conditions. However, use of cancer meds for nonmalignant conditions is not that unusual. It is pretty common in autoimmune disease where lower doses of chemotherapy drugs can be effective in controlling the disease. Basically, the idea is that if we know that these therapies help forms of mast cell disease that behave like cancers then it might help those forms that don’t act like cancer.
  • On a number of occasions, I have seen patients discussing the dangers around certain cancer meds that are sometimes used to treat mast cell disease. In particular, I have seen comments that newer targeted therapies “do not kill cells”, “cannot cause organ damage”, and are “harmless.” This is completely untrue. There are thousands of articles on the side effects and complications of all of the meds I have described here. None of them are harmless. Patients need to understand the risks associated with these therapies.
  • I would like to add a note about something sort of related. Xolair is an anti-IgE medication that is used by many mast cell patients. It is a subcutaneous injection and is administered in a healthcare setting. Patients are required to stay in the office for a little while after the shots are given to be sure that they don’t have a bad reaction. Because the patient is monitored in the office after the shot, the provider’s office will bill insurance for the observation period. The old billing code for this often comes up as “chemotherapy observation” because the same code was used for patients who needed monitoring after chemo. This means that patients may see “chemo” on the explanation of benefits from their insurance company. This does not mean that they received chemo. Xolair is NOT chemotherapy. It’s just a quirk of the medical billing. There is now a new code for post injection observation for meds that are not chemo but not everyone has caught up to it. Just figured I would mention this as people ask about it from time to time.

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 81

94. How are mast cells involved in cancer?

  • Mast cells are very involved in cancer biology. They are frequently found in tumors. Tumors can trick mast cells into doing things they need to stay alive, like make blood vessels to supply the tumor with blood, and tissue remodeling, to push aside the healthy tissue and make room for the tumor.
  • Cancer is mast cell activating. All cancers. This is because cancers often trick the body into doing things that help the cancer and not the body, like I just described above. Having cancer frequently causes allergy symptoms because of mast cell activation.
  • Cancer can also cause the body to make more mast cells than normal, a condition called mast cell hyperplasia. This can happen because the body is trying to fight off the cancer with more immune cells or because it has been tricked by the cancer to make more mast cells to help the cancer.
  • Please note that mast cell hyperplasia is NOT the same as mastocytosis. Mast cell hyperplasia is too many healthy mast cells that function normally. Mastocytosis is too many aberrant mast cells that do not function normally. Cancer does not cause mastocytosis.
  • Long term inflammation increases future risk of cancer at the site of inflammation. This applies almost universally. Mast cells participate significantly in inflammation so they can contribute to the risk of cancer. For example, patients with long term colon inflammation, which may be caused by mast cells, are at increased risk of colon cancer.
  • Patients with mastocytosis have increased risk of developing cancer, especially those with systemic mastocytosis. As many as 40% of patients with systemic mastocytosis develop another blood disorder with too many broken cells. Frequently, the other blood disorder is a blood cancer like chronic myelogenous leukemia.
  • It is not yet known if mast cell activation carries an increased risk of developing cancer.
  • Two forms of systemic mastocytosis are cancerous, mast cell leukemia and mast cell sarcoma. These are both extremely rare and it is extremely rare for a person with a history of mast cell disease to develop either of these conditions.

For further reading, please visit the following post:

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 48

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

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 59

73. Can mast cell disease cause organ damage?

  • Yes.
  • The term organ damage is tricky because people use it to mean a lot of things while providers and researchers often use it to mean one very specific thing. For providers and researchers, the term “organ damage” usually means a change in the organ that affects its structure, like it becomes misshapen or deformed in some way. Structural changes like this are often irreversible. This damage to the organ’s shape and structure usually affects how the organ works, called organ function.
  • When patients and laypeople talk about organ damage, they usually mean a change in the way the organ functions, even if the structure is not changed at all. This is different in a very important way: changes in an organ that do not affect its permanent structure can sometimes be reversible.
  • Both cutaneous and systemic mastocytosis cause organ damage in a way that damages the organ’s structure. When too many mast cells burrow into the tissue of an organ, it has to push other things out of the way. When you have mastocytosis, the mast cells like to stick together and form a big clump in the tissue. This punches holes in the tissue, affecting the organ’s structure and shape. This is called dense infiltration. It is one of the criteria for systemic mastocytosis and also happens in cutaneous mastocytosis.
  • In patients with mastocytosis, those mast cells clumping together cause a lot of the organ damage. This means that people who have the most mast cells usually have the worst organ damage. Patients with malignant forms of mast cell disease, like mast cell leukemia or aggressive systemic mastocytosis, often have organs that are riddled with TONS of mast cells.
  • Mast cells don’t live in the blood so when your body makes way too many mast cells, those mast cells will dive into whatever organ they can to get out of the bloodstream. This causes damage to the structure that you can see with scans or in biopsies.  People with mast cell leukemia and aggressive systemic mastocytosis suffer so much damage to the shape and function of their organs that the organs can totally stop working, called organ failure.
  • One of the key differences researchers and providers see between mastocytosis and mast cell activation syndrome is that mast cells don’t cause THIS TYPE of structural damage in mast cell activation syndrome patients.
  • We know this because in biopsies, they do not have mast cells clumped together to punch holes in the tissue. Sometimes they have lots of mast cells, but it is much less damaging to the tissue if they aren’t clumped together. Think of it like poking something with finger versus punching with your fist.
  • In MCAS, mast cells do not cause structural damage to organs IN THIS WAY. However, many people with MCAS do have structural damage to their organs. Many of them also have organs that do not function correctly even if the organs look normal.
  • Even if you don’t have mast cells punching holes in all your organs, they can still do a lot of damage. This is because mast cells cause lots of inflammation, which can stress out your organs. Over time, your organs can be damaged by the mast cells releasing too many mediators. While this is not always dangerous, it is certainly painful and frustrating.
  • Many MCAS and mastocytosis patients have a lot of damage to their GI tracts from years of vomiting, obstructions, diarrhea or constipation. Hives and mastocytosis spots can damage your skin, causing discoloration, scarring or sensitivity. Muscles can become weaker over time because of mast cell inflammation. Swelling can stretch out your skin and connective tissues. Nerves can be damaged significantly, affecting organ function. Bones can become brittle and break, or can become too dense because the body is making new bone when it shouldn’t.
  • All of these effects on organ function can be caused by mast cells. Major changes in organ function can also cause secondary conditions to arise.
  • Mast cell patients are also at an increased risk for anaphylaxis which can cause changes in organ function or organ damage.
  • Patients who have trouble breathing or low blood pressure may not be getting enough oxygen to their whole body. That can cause lasting damage if it goes on long enough.

For more detailed reading, please visit the following posts:

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 55

69. What routine monitoring should mast cell patients receive?

There are not yet routine testing recommendations for MCAS patients, but there are some for mastocytosis patients. Many doctors use the mastocytosis recommendations to monitor their MCAS patients in the absence of specific MCAS guidelines.

Mastocytosis patients should monitor tryptase level annually. In mastocytosis patients, tryptase level is often a good marker for how many mast cells are in the body (although this is not always true.) If a patient’s tryptase is increasing over time, the provider will need to check other things to see if their disease is moving to a more serious disease category.

DEXA scans measure bone density. Osteoporosis is a common complication of systemic mastocytosis. Patients should receive regular osteoporosis screening, even if they are young.

Mastocytosis patients usually receive routine bloodwork annually that includes a complete blood count (CBC), which counts the amount of blood cells a person has; and a metabolic panel, which looks at how well the liver and kidneys are working.

Repeat biopsies are usually only done if the result will change treatment in some way. Most patients with systemic mastocytosis are diagnosed based upon bone marrow biopsies. These don’t usually need to be repeated unless tryptase level increases sharply or there are unusual results in routine blood count testing. Increasing tryptase can indicate that the body is making more mast cells much faster, which is sometimes linked to a more serious disease category. Unusual blood cell counts can indicate not just too many abnormal mast cells, but also other bone marrow conditions sometimes seen in mast cell patients, like myelofibrosis and essential thrombocythemia.

Patients with cutaneous mastocytosis are diagnosed by skin biopsy. There is not usually a need to repeat a skin biopsy for patients with CM.

Patients with systemic mastocytosis are usually diagnosed by bone marrow biopsy but can also be diagnosed as a result of a positive biopsy in any organ that is not the skin. A person can be diagnosed with SM via a GI biopsy.

GI biopsies are a little different than bone marrow biopsies in that there are sometimes reasons to repeat them. GI biopsies may be repeated to see if the general inflammation in the GI tract is improved or worsened. The provider may also be interested in whether or not the amount of mast cells in the GI tract has decreased. The result of GI biopsies often change treatment options so it is not unusual to repeat them. However, unlike bone marrow biopsies, repeated GI biopsies do not tell the provider if the mastocytosis is moving toward a more serious disease category or not.

MCAS patients are diagnosed based upon positive tests for molecules that indicate mast cells are overly active, like n-methylhistamine, and D2- or 9a,11b-F2 prostaglandins. Once the patient is diagnosed, there’s not a clear rationale for repeating these tests, although some providers do for their own information. Some providers like to check prostaglandin levels to see if treatment to stop mast cells from making prostaglandins (like use of aspirin or other NSAIDs) is helping.

However, it is important to understand that the level of mast cell mediators is not associated with symptoms. A person who has a normal level of 9a,11b-F2 prostaglandin may have the same symptoms as a person above the normal level, who may have the same symptoms as a person who has three times the normal level. For this reason, many providers consider these mediator tests to be less about the numerical value of the test and more about whether it’s normal or high, period.

For more detailed reading, please visit the following post:
The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 5
The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 6
The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 7
The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 8
The Provider Primer Series: Diagnostic criteria of systemic mastocytosis and all sub variants
The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (ISM, SSM, ASM)
The Provider Primer Series: Mediator testing
The Provider Primer Series: Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS)

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, part 49

60. Is anaphylaxis the same as anaphylactic shock?

No. Anaphylaxis can result in anaphylactic shock but it often doesn’t. When talking about anaphylactic shock, people are referring to circulatory shock that was caused by anaphylaxis. Circulatory shock occurs when there is not enough blood to carry oxygen to all the tissues that need it. When the tissues don’t get enough oxygen, your organs stop working correctly.

Circulatory shock is usually caused by low blood pressure. Anaphylaxis commonly causes low blood pressure and that can cause shock. However, anaphylaxis does not always cause low blood pressure, and it does not always cause shock.

61. If a tryptase level over 10.9 ng/mL is high, why is one of the criteria for systemic mastocytosis a tryptase level of 20.0 ng/mL or higher?

Tryptase level is used in two ways in assessing mast cell patients: as a marker for activation, and as a marker for how many mast cells are in the body.

There are two primary methods of using tryptase to indicate mast cell activation.

The first way is to compare a tryptase level when a patient is reacting to a tryptase level when they are not reacting (baseline). Mast cells release more tryptase when they are activated. For mast cell patients, an increase of 20% + 2 ng/mL is considered evidence of mast cell activation. So if a patient has a baseline tryptase of 5 ng/mL when they are not reacting, anything 8 ng/mL (20% of 5 ng/mL is 1 ng/mL, then add 2 ng/mL = 8 ng/mL) or higher is considered evidence of activation.

The second way is to count anything over 10.9 ng/mL as evidence of activation.

When you are using tryptase as a measure of how many mast cells are in the body, the patient should not be reacting beyond their normal day to day symptoms. This is because you don’t want an increase in tryptase from activation to make the baseline level look higher than it is. Tryptase is used to measure how many mast cells are present because mast cells release some tryptase all the time, even when they aren’t activated.

Anything over 10.9 ng/mL is considered an elevation of tryptase. The reason that 20 ng/mL is the cutoff for the SM criterion is that patients are likely to have a positive bone marrow biopsy when the tryptase level is twice normal (21.8 ng/mL). They round the number down to 20 ng/mL because all tests have a margin of error. By rounding down to 20 ng/mL, they catch patients that might not have made the cutoff before because of an error in the test. This means that a patient who has a tryptase level of 20 ng/mL or higher is likely to have a bone marrow biopsy that will be positive for systemic mastocytosis.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

Anaphylaxis and mast cell reactions

The Provider Primer Series: Mediator Testing

Patient questions: Everything you wanted to know about tryptase

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, part 8

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 48

59. Is systemic mastocytosis a form of cancer? Why do some papers say the life expectancy for systemic mastocytosis patients is much shorter?

Systemic mastocytosis is a term that different people use in different ways, often without defining them for the audience. This can lead to some confusion.

In its broadest sense, systemic mastocytosis is actually a disease category rather than one specific diagnosis. The subtypes of systemic mastocytosis are indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM), smoldering systemic mastocytosis (SSM), systemic mastocytosis with associated hematologic disease (SM-AHD), aggressive systemic mastocytosis (ASM), and mast cell leukemia (MCL).

When patients talk about systemic mastocytosis without specifying which diagnosis, they almost always mean indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM), the most common form of SM. ISM is benign and has a normal life expectancy. But when providers and researchers talk about systemic mastocytosis, they usually mean the disease category that includes all of these diagnoses.

I just recently explained in another post what a neoplasm is. It is essentially when the body grows something that doesn’t belong there, like extra cells or a tumor. Cancers are neoplasms but not all neoplasms are cancerous. Indolent systemic mastocytosis is not cancerous. Even without taking drugs to kill off lots of mast cells, the prognosis is excellent with a normal life span. However, aggressive systemic mastocytosis and mast cell leukemia are considered cancerous. Without taking drugs to kill off mast cells, the body would be unable to cope with the huge number of mast cells and the damage they cause. Smoldering systemic mastocytosis is sort of a bridge between ISM, which is benign, and ASM, which is not.

If you are not aware that research papers usually use the term systemic mastocytosis to mean all forms of systemic mastocytosis and not just indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM), it is easy to get confused and misunderstand what is being said. There was a paper published in 2009 that discussed expected survival for the various forms of systemic mastocytosis. It provides a very jarring statistic for patients who may not understand the context. This study found that many patients with systemic mastocytosis died 3-5 years after diagnosis.

Let’s pull this apart. We know there are five forms of SM: indolent SM, the most common form, which usually has a normal life span; smoldering SM, which usually has a shortened life span; aggressive SM, which can have a very shortened life span; mast cell leukemia, which has a very shortened life span; and SM with an associated hematologic disorder, which may have a shortened life span. When you average the life expectancies for a mixed group of patients with these various diagnoses, it shows that overall, SM patients are more likely to die 3-5 years after diagnosis when compared to healthy people of the same age.

Additionally, a lot of the patients in this study group were older and died of causes unrelated to systemic mastocytosis. However, because they were part of the study, their deaths of unrelated causes were still included in this data.

Let’s recap: in a research paper, the term systemic mastocytosis includes forms of SM that are malignant and can really shorten your life expectancy as well as forms that are benign and do not shorten your life expectancy. When you average the life expectancies of all of these forms together, it looks like patients are more likely to die 3-5 years after diagnosis. A bunch of other papers then used the data from this study in 2009 without explaining the details behind it. However, most patients with SM have normal life spans.

For more detailed information, please visit these 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

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 45

54. How does mast cell disease affect clotting?

Heparin is a very potent blood thinner and inhibits the body’s ability to form clots.  Mast cells are full of heparin. Mast cells stores chemicals like heparin in little pouches inside them called granules. In the granules, histamine is stuck to heparin. This means that when mast cells open their granules and release histamine, heparin comes out with it. This can contribute to things like bruising or bleeding more than expected.

Mast cells release other chemicals that can affect clotting. Platelet activation factor and thromboxane A2 both encourage the body to make clots. Some chemicals that help to regulate when to make a clot can activate mast cells, like complement C3a and C5a.

55. How many people have mast cell disease?

It is hard to know exactly how many people have a rare disease because they are not reported if they are recognized and correctly diagnosed. As recognition and diagnosis improves, rare diseases are often found to be more prevalent than previously thought. The numbers below are current estimates.

Systemic mastocytosis is thought to affect around 0.3-13/100000 people. In one large study, indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM) makes up 47% of cases. Aggressive systemic mastocytosis (ASM) has been described in various places as comprising 3-10%. Systemic mastocytosis with associated hematologic disease could count for as many of 40% of cases of SM. Mast cell leukemia is extremely rare and accounts for less than 1% of SM cases.

Systemic mastocytosis accounts for about 10% of total mastocytosis cases. This means that total mastocytosis cases come in at around 3-130/100000 people. The remaining 90% of mastocytosis cases are cutaneous with incidence roughly around 2.7-117/100000 people.

We do not have yet have a great grasp upon how many people have mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) but from where I am sitting, it’s a lot and that number is likely to grow. We know that genetic studies have found mutations that might be linked to MCAS in up to 9% of the people in some groups. However, having a mutation is not the same thing as having a disease. As we learn more about MCAS, we will gain some clarity around how many people have it.

For more detailed reading, please visit the following posts:

Progression of mast cell diseases: Part 2

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

The Provider Primer Series: Cutaneous mastocytosis/Mastocytosis in the skin

 

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 43

52. Is it true that it can take up to six bone marrow biopsies to diagnose systemic mastocytosis?

Sort of. This has become sort of an urban legend in the mast cell community. I am partly to blame for this as I have offered this information up several times without explaining it, which is lazy on my part.

Systemic mastocytosis is diagnosed by biopsy. While a positive biopsy in any organ that’s not skin can be used to diagnose SM, bone marrow biopsies are overwhelmingly what is used to diagnose.

In 2004, a paper was published that discussed how well bone marrow biopsies worked for diagnosing SM in a group of 23 patients. These patients had bilateral bone marrow biopsies taken, so each patient had one on each side. In 19 of those patients, both of the biopsies showed mastocytosis. In 4 of those patients, only one of their two biopsies was positive. 4/23 is 17%, which is roughly 1/6. Based upon this figure, it means that theoretically, in a patient who has SM, they could have five negative biopsies before getting a positive biopsy.

It’s important to two things in mind when you think about this 1/6 thing. Firstly, this is a very small patient group. Things that you see in a small group don’t always translate to what really happens in larger groups. Another thing is that the criteria they used in 2004 to diagnose SM are not the same as the criteria we use now. It’s possible that with changes in diagnostic criteria that this 1/6 number is no longer accurate.

In reality, I have never met a person who needed six bone marrow biopsies to get a positive biopsy for SM. But I do know a few who needed two or three. It’s not impossible that it could take six to get a positive biopsy but it’s unlikely.

However, it’s also important to realize that every expert acknowledges that you can have a negative biopsy while having SM. The reason for this is that you can’t tell by looking whether or not a biopsy site will give you a positive biopsy for SM. You have to just hope that the mast cells are clustered where they stick the needle. Mast cells don’t cluster evenly throughout your bone marrow when you have SM. If you get a biopsy site where the mast cells didn’t happen to cluster, you are out of luck. For this reason, some doctors advocate getting bilateral bone marrow biopsies (two at once) to increase the chances of catching a positive biopsy.