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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)