Patient questions: Is mast cell disease autoimmune?

Autoimmune disease is when your body has an abnormal immune response to something that is a normal part of the body. There are more than eighty currently identified autoimmune diseases and they affect a significant population worldwide. At least 2% of women are estimated to have at least one autoimmune condition. Multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are examples of autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases can affect small areas or multiple organs or targets throughout the body.

There are a number of possible causes of autoimmune disease. Some well supported theories include:
1. Molecular mimicry. This occurs when the body is exposed to an external danger and direct antibodies and immune defense against this danger. However, once the danger has been resolved, the antibodies and immune defense are directed toward damaging some normal part of the body that by happenstance looks like the dangerous thing. A classic example of this is development of rheumatic fever, PANDAS and other complications after a Streptococcus infection. The body makes antibodies to fight Strep, the Strep is killed and infection resolved, but the antibodies then attack things in the body that look like strep to the antibodies.
2. Genetic predisposition. Mutations and improper expression of genes that mediate tolerance, like HLA genes, can result in autoimmune disease. In these patients, these anomalies cause the body to fail to recognize itself as “safe”.
3. Cryptic determinants. This refers to the situation in which a hidden part of a normal structure in the body is not usually “seen” by the rest of the body. When that hidden part is exposed to the rest of the body, the immune system does not recognize it and attacks it, thinking it is dangerous. I imagine this as a waterway in a year of drought. A river has many small black rocks on the bottom. When the water is high, like most years, you cannot see these rocks. In a year of drought, the water level drops and you can the black rocks on the bottom. They were always a natural part of the riverbed, and they were always there, you just couldn’t see them. This can happen inside the body too. Sometimes your immune system sees things that were always there but not seen by it before.

The key feature unifying autoimmune diseases is that the immune system directly targets a part of the body that is normal and healthy. In lupus, the body makes antibodies that target the DNA inside our cells, which is not just normal but critically important to survival. It doesn’t target defective DNA, it targets regular old, keeps us alive, DNA.

Mast cell diseases are not autoimmune diseases. Mast cell diseases are not directly their attacks to a normal, healthy part of the body. In mast cell disease, mast cells are dysregulated and behave inappropriately. While this can damage parts of the body, this damage occurs due to the general inflammatory environment rather than because mast cells specifically targeted those parts of the body. Aberrant mast cells aren’t saying, “Quick, there’s an intruder in the liver! Let’s go get them!” when it’s just your regular liver hanging out. They are just so activated that mediator release could damage some cells in the liver, and in other places at the same time. The mast cell activation does not specifically target the liver in this scenario.

A confusing aspect of mast cell disease is that MCAS can occur secondary to autoimmune disease and many MCAS patients have autoimmune disease. In this patient population, the MCAS is probably induced by the inflammation caused by the autoimmune disease. Even still, while the primary autoimmune disease targets specific parts of the body, MCAS does not target specific parts of the body to attempt to destroy them.