Mast cell evaluation in gastrointestinal biopsies: should we be counting? A critical review and practical guide for the surgical pathologist

Histopathology. 2023 Feb 27. doi: 10.1111/his.14897. Online ahead of print.


Sameer Shivji 1James Ryan Conner 1Richard Kirsch 1


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1Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, ON, Canada.


Mast cells are residents of the tubular gastrointestinal (GI) tract, where they play an important role in host defence and other vital functions. Dysregulation of mast cells has been implicated in the pathogenesis of several neoplastic, inflammatory, and functional disorders, some of which may manifest with GI symptoms. Surgical pathologists must therefore confront when and how to evaluate GI biopsies for mast cells, and whether such decisions should be based on morphologic criteria, clinical context, or direct request from clinical colleagues. The pathologist's role in evaluation of mast cell infiltrates is best defined in the diagnosis of systemic mastocytosis, where the utility of morphologic assessment coupled with ancillary studies is well established. In contrast, in nonneoplastic mast cell disorders such as mast cell activation syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, or so-called 'mastocytic enterocolitis', a role for histopathology, if any, is controversial. Despite this, pathologists have seen a sharp increase in requests for mast cell quantification in the latter setting, despite these requests not being supported by published evidence. Moreover, what constitutes a 'normal' number of mast cells in a luminal GI biopsy is not well established. As a result, there is considerable variation in how these requests are handled in practice. This review evaluates and summarizes the published evidence relating to mast cell evaluation in endoscopic GI biopsies in various clinical scenarios, with a goal of providing practical, evidence-based guidance for the surgical pathologist when approached with requests for mast cell quantification in GI biopsies.

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