45. Is mast cell disease autoimmune?
An autoimmune disease is the result of a patient’s immune system specifically targeting a normal, healthy part of their body. How particularly and precisely the immune system identifies part of the body to attack is very important to understanding my answer to this question.
Let’s look at some autoimmune diseases as examples.
Autoimmune thyroiditis (also called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) is a prevalent autoimmune disease that targets the thyroid. The thyroid’s job is to make hormones that tell your body to do other things. These hormones are called thyroid hormones. When you have autoimmune thyroiditis, your immune system makes antibodies that target the thyroid and thyroid hormones. These are called autoantibodies. They target a normal part of body. There is no reason for the body to make these autoantibodies. They do not perform any healthy function for the body. The only function they serve is to attack part of the body.
When you have autoimmune thyroiditis, the immune system makes antibodies to things that are only found in the thyroid or made by the thyroid. (I’m being very general here.) Other autoimmune diseases target parts of the body that are found throughout the body so that the effects of the disease are more widespread. However, those diseases still target specific things.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects many places in the body by precisely attacking things found throughout the body. The cells in your body all have DNA inside of them. This DNA has the genes to make proteins and other things your body needs. If the cell can’t use the DNA inside it correctly, it makes your body sick. This is exactly what happens in lupus. Lupus makes autoantibodies and attacks things inside your cells that your body needs to use the DNA. Because all of the cells in your body need to use their DNA, the things lupus attacks are found all over the body, not just one organ. But even though lupus attacks many organs and places throughout your body, it is still targeted to harm specific pieces of the body.
In autoimmune disease, the body makes specific things for the explicit purpose of damaging specific things.
Now let’s talk about mast cell disease.
Currently, mast cell diseases are not considered to be autoimmune by most – but not all – experts. (I’ll circle back to this.) When a person has mast cell disease, the fundamental issue is that they release tons of mast cell mediators at times when they shouldn’t, causing symptoms and damage to the body. But even though those chemicals can cause all kinds of problems, they are not targeted to attack specific structures. This is where the distinction is from autoimmune diseases. Mast cells release tons of histamine, but that histamine isn’t targeted to find a specific molecule inside of a liver cell. They release prostaglandin D2, but that PGD2 isn’t made for the particular purpose of attacking one particular thing inside of your thyroid.
Instead, the molecules released incorrectly by mast cells affect whatever cells are in its path. This is one of the reasons why there is such variability in symptoms and disease effects for mast cell patients. What parts of the body are affected the most is dependent upon a million things happening in the patient’s body. This is because the chemicals mast cells release are not targeted to any one place. They are just released by the mast cell and they go wherever they can before the body breaks them down.
I mentioned above that most experts did not consider mast cell diseases to be autoimmune, but not all of them. So let’s go back to that. Mastocytosis is not considered autoimmune but anyone as far as I am aware. There is absolutely no evidence that mastocytosis is autoimmune after decades of research. But MCAS is a newer entity and so there is less information on it due to less time spent researching it. There are still a lot of questions around MCAS and some experts think that whether or not it is autoimmune is one of them.
We know that at the very least that there is a connection between MCAS and autoimmune disease. Many MCAS patients have autoimmune disease, often more than one. We think MCAS occurs secondarily to the autoimmune disease in these patients. There’s also the fact that many MCAS patients are positive for ANA (antinuclear antibody), an autoantibody linked to lupus, even though they don’t have a diagnosed autoimmune disease that would cause that to be positive. Some people think that maybe MCAS is the autoimmune disease in that situation and that ANA is a marker indicating that MCAS is autoimmune. I have mentioned elsewhere that while we consider MCAS to usually be a secondary disease, there are some patients for whom we can’t find a primary disease. It is possible that MCAS is a primary condition in those people and that it is autoimmune.
You still need to keep in mind that even if we say that maybe the positive ANA shows that MCAS is autoimmune, there is still no evidence of any kind that indicates that mast cell mediators target a specific part of the body – a defining characteristic of autoimmune disease. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an autoantibody or some other mechanism for targeting precise structures in the body, just that we have no evidence of one existing right now.
Let’s recap: currently, most experts believe that mast cell diseases are not autoimmune because they do not target specific normal, healthy structures in the body. Mastocytosis is roundly agreed to not be autoimmune. There are some experts who feel that at least some cases of MCAS might be autoimmune. They feel this way because of the clear link between MCAS and other autoimmune diseases, as well as the fact that many MCAS patients are positive for an autoimmune marker, ANA, without evidence of an autoimmune disease that would explain that.