The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 1

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

  1. What are mast cells?
    • Mast cells are white blood cells that live in tissues. It is a little misleading that mast cells are white blood cells because they don’t live in the blood. Mast cells are born in the bone marrow, the squishy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made. From the bone marrow, they are sent to the blood stream. Mast cells use the bloodstream to carry them to their final destination so they do not stay in the blood for very long. Mast cells move out of the blood stream and into tissues throughout the body. Mast cells live for months or years, a long time for cells to live in the human body.
    • Mast cells do many things in the body. They are largely responsible for allergic reactions and anaphylaxis. They have many other jobs, like healing wounds, regulating reproductive activities (menstruation, pregnancy), and fighting infections from viruses, bacteria, fungi, and even intestinal parasites like worms. The original function of mast cells thousands of years ago was probably to fight off intestinal parasites. Mast cells are found in many tissues and are essential for correct functioning of the body.
    • Mast cells have many pouches inside of them called granules. These granules hold chemicals made by the mast cells. These chemicals help the mast cells to do their various jobs. They also help mast cells to communicate with other cells nearby or in other parts of the body. These chemicals can be released into the bloodstream to signal for other immune cells to come to the mast cell that released them.
  2. What is mast cell disease?
    • Mast cell diseases are rare diseases in which your body makes too many mast cells and/or mast cells do not function correctly. In the US, diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 people are called rare diseases.
    • Mast cell diseases are broadly classified into two groups: clonal and non-clonal (also called proliferative and non-proliferative).
    • 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. They use too much energy on the wrong things. Because these mast cells are often busy making truble, they don’t have as much energy to do their normal necessary functions.
    • Clonal mast cell diseases include all forms of systemic mastocytosis (indolent, smoldering, aggressive, and mast cell leukemia); all forms of cutaneous mastocytosis (urticaria pigmentosa, of which telangiectasia macularis eruptiva perstans is a subtype, diffuse cutaneous mastocytosis); mastocytoma (usually found on the skin but also found elsewhere); mast cell sarcoma; and monoclonal mast cell activation syndrome. Importantly, in clonal mast cell diseases, the problem is not just that too many mast cells are made – those mast cells must also be dysfunctional for the disease to be clonal.
    • In non-clonal mast cell disease, the number of mast cells may be normal, but the cells are broken. Importantly, people with non-clonal mast cell disease may make more mast cells than normal, but not enough to be considered a clonal disease. In these diseases, even if the bone marrow makes the normal amount of mast cells, they still do not work correctly. They use too much energy on the wrong things. Because these mast cells are often working to inflame the body when it is not needed, they don’t have as much energy to do their normal necessary functions.
    • Non-clonal mast cell diseases include all other forms of mast cell disease: mast cell activation syndrome (secondary and idiopathic); familial hypertryptasemia; and mastocytic enterocolitis, which is recognized by some groups as its own disease, and by other groups as part of different mast cell diseases.
    • In these diseases, mast cells do not function properly. In all mast cell diseases, mast cells can get irritated easily. They respond to things in the environment and inside the body that they think are dangerous, even when those things are normal and safe for most people. This response is called mast cell activation.
    • Mast cell activation causes many symptoms. Many of these symptoms are “allergic” in nature. Some are not directly recognizable as “allergic”. Symptoms can affect every bodily system or may be localized to only one or two. It differs from person to person and can change over time within a person. You cannot know which mast cell disease a person has based upon their symptoms.

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)