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Is the Presence of 6 or Fewer Crypt Apoptotic Bodies Sufficient for Diagnosis of Graft Versus Host Disease? A Decade of Experience at a Single Institution

Lin, Jingmei MD, PhD; Fan, Rong MD, PhD; Zhao, Zijin MD; Cummings, Oscar W. MD; Chen, Shaoxiong MD, PhD

The American Journal of Surgical Pathology: April 2013 - Volume 37 - Issue 4 - p 539–547
doi: 10.1097/PAS.0b013e318272c62a
Original Articles

Histopathology assessment is crucial for the diagnosis of graft versus host disease (GVHD), as the presence of crypt apoptosis is the cardinal criterion required. However, crypt apoptosis is not limited to GVHD; it also occurs in other conditions such as infection, drug reaction, or inflammatory reactions unrelated to GVHD. To better determine whether the presence of 6 or fewer apoptotic bodies is sufficient for the diagnosis of GVHD, we retrospectively reviewed 78 colon biopsies from 66 patients who received either hematopoietic stem cell (HSCT) or cord blood cell transplantation and whose colon biopsies exhibited apoptotic bodies. Among them, 41 cases contained 6 or fewer apoptotic bodies in the colon biopsy. These biopsies were compared with 141 colon biopsy controls that showed no significant pathologic changes as well as 16 colon biopsies with cytomegalovirus colitis from patients without a history of bone marrow transplantation. Among the 41 cases reviewed, 7 patients had coexisting GVHD in other organs (skin or liver). However, gastrointestinal symptoms of at least 4 HSCT patients whose colon biopsies contained 6 or fewer apoptotic bodies completely resolved in the absence of further intervention for GVHD. The discrepancy between pathologic findings and the clinical course may be due to confounding factors, such as infection or medication-induced injury. Our data suggest that identifying 6 or fewer crypt apoptotic bodies in colon biopsies from HSCT patients is worth reporting in order to alert the clinicians of the possibility of GVHD but not sufficient to render a diagnosis on the pathologic grounds alone. The colon biopsies containing 6 or fewer apoptotic bodies represent a heterogenous group. We suggest this group to be classified as indeterminate for GVHD, instead of diagnosing GVHD outright. Synthesis of all clinical, endoscopic, and pathologic information, including the status of infection, coexisting GVHD involvement in the other organs, and medication, is essential for confirmation of the diagnosis of GVHD.

Departments of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, IN

Conflicts of Interest and Source of Funding: The authors have disclosed that they have no significant relationships with, or financial interest in, any commercial companies pertaining to this article.

Correspondence: Jingmei Lin, MD, PhD, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine, 350 West 11th Street, Indianapolis, IN 46202 (e-mail:

© 2013 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.