The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 2

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

3. What causes mast cell disease?

  • The cause of mast cell disease is not yet definitively known.
  • As mentioned yesterday, 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. Examples of clonal mast cell diseases are systemic mastocytosis and cutaneous mastocytosis.
  • Patients with systemic mastocytosis often have a specific genetic mutation called the CKIT D816V mutation. About 80-90% of systemic mastocytosis patients have this mutation. This mutation is in mast cells and it tells the mast cells to stay alive WAY longer than they should. And mast cells already live for months or years, a very long time for cells to live in the body. So patients with this mutation can end up with way too many broken mast cells.
  • Despite the fact that we know that many patients have this mutation, we do not say that this mutation CAUSES the disease. The reason for this is that sometimes, mast cell patients don’t have the mutation when they get sick but they develop it later. Sometimes, mast cell patients have the mutation and then lose it later. So we are still looking for something that causes the disease.
  • Patients with non-clonal mast cell disease do not have a single major mutation like the CKIT D816V mutation. This makes it harder to diagnose. Researchers have found that many times, patients with MCAS DO have mutations similar to the ones systemic mastocytosis patients do. But the MCAS patients often have different mutations from each other. That’s why it’s not helpful yet for diagnosis.
  • Despite the fact that the mutations described here are not considered to be heritable, there is more and more evidence that mast cell disease can happen to many people in the same family. See the next question for more details.

4. Is mast cell disease heritable?

  • Mast cell disease often affects multiple members of the same family. Importantly, patients often have a different type of mast cell disease than their relatives. This implies that mast cell disease is more of a spectrum rather than several different diseases.
  • A survey found that 74% of mast cell patients interviewed reported at least one first degree relative that had mast cell disease. This same study found that 46% of those patients had mast cell disease that affected more than just their skin. This is called systemic disease.
  • The CKIT D816V mutation is the mutation most strongly associated with clonal mast cell disease. The CKIT D816V mutation is NOT heritable.
  • There are very rare instances of other heritable mutations in families that have mast cell disease. The significance of this is not clear.

5. Can mast cell disease be cured?

  • Generally speaking, there is no cure for mast cell disease.
  • Children who present with cutaneous mastocytosis sometimes grow out of their disease. Their lesions disappear. Their mast cell symptoms affecting the rest of the body may disappear. We do not know why this happens. It has been heavily researched with long term follow up of children with childhood mastocytosis (at least one paper followed them for 20 years).
  • Children with true systemic mastocytosis do not grow out of their disease.
  • There is not yet data on children with MCAS. Anecdotally, they do not seem to grow out of their disease like kids with cutaneous mastocytosis can. Importantly, this is just what it looks like to me. Again, there is no data.
  • People with adult onset mast cell disease have lifelong disease.
  • There is one notable exception to this scenario. There are reports of curing mast cell disease following hematopoietic stem cell transplant/bone marrow transplant.
  • Transplantation is EXTREMELY dangerous. The transplant is MUCH, MUCH more dangerous than mast cell disease. Many people do not survive the protocol necessary to prepare for transplant. Many die from complications, or from a disease they acquired after their transplant.
  • Rarely, people may have malignant forms of mast cell disease, aggressive systemic mastocytosis (ASM) or mast cell leukemia (MCL). A few patients with these diseases have tried transplants after everything else failed. While some did see improvement after transplant, no one has survived more than a few years.
  • Conversely, sometimes people with mast cell disease have these transplants for other reasons, like having another blood cancer or bone marrow disease that requires transplant. In this group of people, some see drastic improvement of their mast cell disease. Some see a full remission of mast cell disease. Some do not get any improvement. These findings are pretty recent so it’s hard to be more specific.

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)

Mast cell disease in families

Heritable mutations in mastocytosis

The Provider Primer Series: Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS)

Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), also called mast cell activation disorder (MCAD), is an immunologic condition in which mast cells are aberrantly activated, resulting in inappropriate mediator release.


  • MCAS can be responsible for chronic symptoms in multiple organs that cannot be attributed to another cause[vi].
  • Patients frequently receive diagnosis for a number of idiopathic conditions prior to correct diagnosis with MCAS[vi].
  • Mast cell activation syndrome is overwhelmingly a secondary condition. MCAS can be secondary to a number of conditions, including autoimmune diseases, connective tissue diseases, and atopic conditions[i].
  • The term “primary MCAS” refers to mediator release symptoms associated with mastocytosis[xvii] . However, the term “mastocytosis” generally conveys the understanding that both proliferation and mediator release symptoms are possible.
  • In idiopathic MCAS, no cause for symptoms can be identified[xvii] .
  • The presence of multiple mast cell patients in one family is not uncommon. A heritable gene has not yet been identified. Epigenetic mechanisms are suspected for transmission of mast cell disease to another generation[iv].
  • Approximately 75% of mast cell patients have at least one first degree relative with mast cell disease and not always the same subtype[ii]. For example, a mother may have MCAS, while one of her children has SM and the other has CM.

Diagnostic criteria

  • MCAS is a recently described diagnosis. In the absence of large studies, several groups have developed their own, sometimes conflicting, diagnostic criteria.
  • Differential diagnoses with potential to cause similar symptoms should be considered and excluded[iii].
  • The criteria most frequently used include those by a 2010 paper by Akin, Valent and Metcalfe[iii]; a 2011 paper by Molderings, Afrin and colleagues[iv]; and a 2013 paper by Castells and colleagues[v].
  • The criteria described in the 2011 paper by Molderings, Afrin and colleagues have been updated to include response to medication[vi].
  • Of note, a 2012 consensus proposal[x] was authored by a number of mast cell experts including Valent, Escribano, Castells, Akin and Metcalfe. It sees little practical use and is not generally accepted in the community.
  • The major sets of criteria listed above all include the following features:
    • Recurrent or chronic symptoms of mast cell activation
    • Objective evidence of excessive mast cell mediator release
    • Positive response to medications that inhibit action of mast cell mediators
  • Valent warns that in some cases, patients may not fulfill all criteria but still warrant treatment: “In many cases, only two or even one of these three criteria can be documented. In the case of typical symptoms, the provisional diagnosis of ‘possibly MCA/MCAS’ can be established, and in acute cases, immediate treatment should be introduced.”[vii]

Evidence of mediator release

  • Mast cells produce a multitude of mediators including tryptase, histamine, prostaglandin D2, leukotrienes C4, D4 and E4, heparin and chromogranin A[viii].
  • Serum tryptase and 24 hour urine testing for n-methylhistamine, prostaglandin D2, prostaglandin 9a,11b-F2 are frequently included in testing guidelines in literature (Castells 2013)[ix], (Akin 2010)[x], (Valent 2012)[xi].
  • It can be helpful to test for other mast cell mediators including 24 hour urine testing for leukotriene E4[xii]; plasma heparin[xiii]; and serum chromogranin A[xiv].
  • In most instances, elevation of a mediator must be present on two occasions[ix]. This helps to exclude situations of appropriate mast cell activation, such as infection or wound healing.
  • For patients with baseline tryptase level >15 ng/mL, elevation of tryptase above this baseline is only required on one occasion[viii].

Symptoms associated with mast cell activation

  • Mediator release causes a wide array of symptoms, including hypertension[xv], hypotension, hypertension, wheezing, itching, flushing, tachycardia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, headache, angioedema, fatigue, and neurologic symptoms[iv].
  • In a small MCAS cohort (18 patients), 17% had a history of anaphylaxis[xvii] . A larger data set is desirable.
  • Patients with history of anaphylaxis should be prescribed epinephrine autoinjectors[v]. If patient must be on a beta blocker, they should be prescribed a glucagon injector for use in the event of anaphylaxis[v].

Response to medications that inhibit action of mast cell mediators

  • Treatment of MCAS is complex and may require a number of medications. Second generation H1 antihistamines; H2 antihistamines; and mast cell stabilizers are mainstays of treatment[xvi].
  • Additional options include aspirin; anti-IgE; leukotriene blocker; and corticosteroids[xiii] .
  • First generation H1 antihistamines may be used for breakthrough symptoms[xiii] .
  • “An important point is that many different mediators may be involved in MCA-related symptoms so that the final conclusion the patient is not responding to antimediator therapy should only be drawn after having applied several different antimediator-type drugs[xiii] .
  • Inactive ingredients are often to blame for reaction to mast cell mediator focused medications. Many mast cell patients see benefit from having medications compounded[xvii].

Natural history

  • In one MCAS cohort of 18 patients, 33% had a complete (no unmanaged symptoms) response and 33% had a major (only one serious symptom) response after one year of mast cell treatment[xviii].
  • In another MCAS cohort of 135 patients, 51% demonstrated significant improvement, 11% had no obvious change in symptom severity and 38% experienced worsening symptoms[v]. (Author’s note: While described in an Afrin 2016[v] paper, the data from this cohort has not yet been published. Molderings is the principle investigator.



[i] Frieri M, et al. (2013). Mast cell activation syndrome: a review. Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, 13(1), 27-32.

[ii] Molderings GJ, et al. (2013). Familial occurrence of systemic mast cell activation disease. PLoS One, 8, e76241-24098785

[iii] Akin C, et al. (2010). Mast cell activation syndrome: proposed diagnostic criteria. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 126(6), 1099-1104.e4

[iv] Molderings GJ, et al. (2011). Mast cell activation disease: a concise practical guide for diagnostic workup and therapeutic options. Journal of Hematology & Oncology, 4(10), 10.1186/1756-8722-4-10

[v] Castells M, et al. (2013). Expanding spectrum of mast cell activation disorders: monoclonal and idiopathic mast cell activation syndromes. Clin Ther, 35(5), 548-562.

[vi] Afrin LB, et al. (2016). Often seen, rarely recognized: mast cell activation disease – a guide to diagnosis and therapeutic options. Annals of Medicine, 48(3).

[vii] Valent P. (2013). Mast cell activation syndromes: definition and classification. European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 68(4), 417-424.

[viii] Theoharides TC, et al. (2012). Mast cells and inflammation. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Molecular Basis of Disease, 1822(1), 21-33.

[ix] Picard M, et al. (2013). Expanding spectrum of mast cell activation disorders: monoclonal and idiopathic mast cell activation syndromes. Clinical Therapeutics, 35(5), 548-562.

[x] Akin C, et al. (2010). Mast cell activation syndrome: proposed diagnostic criteria. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 126(6), 1099-1104.e4

[xi] Valent P, et al. (2012). Definitions, criteria and global classification of mast cell disorders with special reference to mast cell activation syndromes: a consensus proposal. Int Arch Allergy Immunol, 157(3), 215-225.

[xii] Lueke AJ, et al. (2016). Analytical and clinical validation of an LC-MS/MS method for urine leukotriene E4: a marker of systemic mastocytosis. Clin Biochem, 49(13-14), 979-982.

[xiii] Vysniauskaite M, et al. (2015). Determination of plasma heparin level improves identification of systemic mast cell activation disease. PLoS One, 10(4), e0124912

[xiv] Zenker N, Afrin LB. (2015). Utilities of various mast cell mediators in diagnosing mast cell activation syndrome. Blood, 126(5174).

[xv] Shibao C, et al. (2005). Hyperadrenergic postural tachycardia syndrome in mast cell activation disorders. Hypertension, 45(3), 385-390.

[xvi] Cardet JC, et al. (2013). Immunology and clinical manifestations of non-clonal mast cell activation syndrome. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep, 13(1), 10-18.

[xvii] Afrin LB. “Presentation, diagnosis and management of mast cell activation syndrome.” In: Mast Cells. Edited by David B. Murray, Nova cience Publishers, Inc., 2013, 155-232.

[xviii] Hamilton MJ, et al. (2011). Mast cell activation syndrome: a newly recognized disorder with systemic clinical manifestations. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 128(1), 147-152.e2

Heritable mutations in mastocytosis

While the most well-known mutation associated with SM is the CKIT D816V, there are numerous other mutations that can contribute to mast cell disease and presentation. The CKIT gene produces a tyrosine kinase receptor on the outside of the mast cell. Tyrosine kinases function as switches that turn certain cell functions on and off. When stem cell factor binds to the CKIT receptor, it turns on the signal for the mast cell to live longer than usual and to make more mast cells.

The D816V mutation is located in a specific part of the CKIT gene called exon 17. As many as 44% of SM patients have CKIT mutations outside of exon 17, either alone or in addition to the D816V mutation. (Please note that for the purposes of this post, SM is used to refer to SM, ASM and SM-AHNMD in keeping with the source literature.) Still, most doctors and researchers believe the D816V mutation is not heritable. This has important implications because it means many doctors also believe mast cell disease is sporadic and not heritable.

Almost 75% of MCAD (SM, MCAS, MCL) patients had at least one first degree relative with MCAD. This study, published in 2013, demonstrated that despite the non-heritable nature of the D816V mutation, mast cell disease is indeed heritable. Currently, four heritable mutations present in mast cell patients have been identified.

CKIT is often called KIT. In one family in which the mother, daughter and granddaughter have all have indolent SM, they were all found to have a deletion at position 409 in KIT (called KITdel409.) The KIT F522C mutation has been associated with ISM.   Another heritable mutation, KIT K509I, has been identified multiple times by different researchers. The first publication to identify this mutation was published in 2006. It has been found in a mother/daughter set who have ISM, and in another mother/daughter set in which the mother has ASM and the daughter has CM. This mutation was noted in a 2014 paper to be associated with well differentiated SM.

There have been reports of families in which multiple members with ISM or SM-AHNMD had the D816V mutation. Importantly, in these patients, the mutation was readily found in numerous cell types, including mast cells, CD34+ hematopoietic precursor cells, blood leukocytes, oral epithelial cells, blast cells and erythroid precursors. Despite this finding, the majority of literature continues to report the D816V mutation as not heritable.



G.J. Molderings. The genetic basis of mast cell activation disease – looking through a glass darkly. Critical Reviews in Oncology/Hematology 2014.

G.J. Molderings, B. Haenisch, M. Bogdanow, R. Fimmers, M.M. Nöthen. Familial occurrence of systemic mast cell activation disease. PLoS One, 8 (2013), p. e76241

Hartmann, E. Wardelmann, Y. Ma, S. Merkelbach-Bruse, L.M. Preussenr, C. Woolery, et al. Novel germline mutation of KIT associated with familial gastrointestinal stromal tumors and mastocytosis. Gastroenterology, 129 (2005), pp. 1042–1046

R.A. Speight, A. Nicolle, S.J. Needham, M.W. Verrill, J. Bryon, S. Panter. Rare germline mutation of KIT with imatinib-resistant multiple GI stromal tumors and mastocytosis. J Clin Oncol, 31 (2013), pp. e245–e247

de Melo Campos, J.A. Machado-Neto, A.S.S. Duarte, R. Scopim-Ribeiro, F.F. de Carvalho Barra, J.Vassallo, et al.Familial mastocytosis: identification of KIT K509I mutation and its in vitro sensitivity to imatinib, dasatinib and PK412. Blood, 122 (2013), p. 5267

L.Y. Zhang, M.L. Smith, B. Schultheis, J. Fitzgibbon, T.A. Lister, J.V. Melo, et al. A novel K5091 mutation of KIT identified in familial mastocytosis – in vitro and in vivo responsiveness to imatinib therapy. Leukemia Res, 30 (2006), pp. 373–378

E.C. Chan, Y. Bai, A.S. Kirshenbaum, E.R. Fischer, O. Simakova, G. Bandara, et al. Mastocytosis associated with a rare germline KIT K509I mutation displays a well-differentiated mast cell phenotype. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 134 (2014), pp. 178–187

Akin, G. Fumo, A.S. Yavuz, P.E. Lipsky, L. Neckers, D.D. Metcalfe. A novel form of mastocytosis associated with a transmembrane c- Kit mutation and response to imatinib. Blood, 103 (2004), pp. 3222–3225

Escribano, R. Nunez-Lopez, M. Jara, A. Garcia-Montero, A. Prados, C. Teodosio, et al. Indolent systemic mastocytosis with germline D816 V somatic c-kit mutation evolving to an acute myeloid leukemia. J Allery Clin Immunol, 117 (Suppl.) (2006), p. S125

Mast cell disease in families

Three types of MCAD are currently known: systemic mastocytosis (SM); mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS); and mast cell leukemia (MCL).  SM and MCL are thought to be rare, while MCAS is now believed to be much more common, and possibly even the underlying cause of various clinical presentations (such as IBS and fibromyalgia.)  Very little is known about the heritability of these conditions , but many patients report that they have family members with similar symptoms. 

A study examining the familiality of MCAD found that 74% of patients interviewed had at least one first degree relative (parents, siblings, children) with systemic MCAD, regardless of MCAD subtype or gender.  The prevalence of systemic MCAD among first-degree relatives was 46%, while the prevalence in the control group is about 17%.  The prevalence of MCAD among first-degree relatives of patients with MCAS was 60%; with SM was 44%. 

MCAD subtype and severity of symptoms varied between family members.  Variable genetic alterations in CKIT were detected.  Activating CKIT mutations were found in 65% of patients, compared to 15% of the control group. The genetic mutations detected in the three families included mutations at position 816 of CKIT (D816G, D816V, S1A).  This finding is remarkable in that it disproves the longstanding belief that the somatic nature of KIT and related exon 17 mutations means that it cannot be inherited.  It also supports the belief that other mutations in genes that regulate mast cells could be contributing to these diseases.  Multiple mutations were sometimes found in the same patient, including those found in other genes (JAK2, TET2, DNMT3A, ASLX1, CBL, U2AF1, SRSF2, MS4A2). 

There was also no obvious relation between the CKIT mutations and clinical severity of MCAD.  Although familial occurrence due to shared environmental factors cannot be ruled out, it is likely that there is a significant genetic contribution to this phenomenon.  More females than males were affected.  The prevalence of MCAS was expected to be at least within the single-figure percentage range in the population (1-9%.) 

Systemic MCAD family histories include more systemic MCAD cases than would be expected when compared to the prevalence in the general population. This study advocates that the different subtypes of MCAD (MCAS and SM) should be more accurately regarded as varying types of the same disease rather than distinct diseases of mast cell dysfunction.


Molderings GJ, Haenisch B, Bogdanow M, Fimmers R, No¨ then MM (2013) Familial Occurrence of Systemic Mast Cell Activation Disease. PLoS ONE 8(9):e76241. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076241