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The Symptomatic and Histologic Response to a Gluten-Free Diet in Patients With Borderline Enteropathy

Tursi, Antonio M.D.; Brandimarte, Giovanni M.D.

Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology: January 2003 - Volume 36 - Issue 1 - p 13-17
Alimentary Tract: Clinical Research

Goals A clinical problem is posed by patients with symptoms suggestive of gluten sensitivity (diarrhea, weight loss, unresponsive iron-deficiency anemia, etc.); however, small intestinal biopsies reveal only minor abnormalities, such as lymphocytosis with or without crypt hyperplasia (Marsh I-II). Our aim was to assess the benefit of a gluten-free diet (GFD) in patients with these small bowel mucosal abnormalities.

Study We studied 35 patients (11 men, 24 women; mean age, 28 years; range, 22–51 years) referred to us for gastrointestinal symptoms or unexplained or unresponsive diseases. Because celiac disease was suspected to be the underlying pathology, small intestinal biopsies were taken. These revealed only minor abnormalities: 11 patients showed Marsh I type lesions, whereas 24 patients demonstrated Marsh II type lesions. Although the histologic lesions were inconsistent for celiac disease and a suspicion of a borderline celiac disease persisted, all patients were motivated to adhere to GFD.

Results Only 23 patients adhered to our advice and followed a GFD; follow-up biopsies were taken after 8 to 12 months. In the Marsh I lesion group (seven patients), five patients showed mucosal normalization to Marsh 0 and two showed persistence of Marsh I lesions. In the Marsh II lesion group (16 patients), 9 patients revealed mucosal normalization, 5 improved to a Marsh I lesion, and 3 revealed persistence of Marsh II lesions. A dramatic clinical improvement in symptoms was noted in all patients who were on a GFD, with symptoms virtually disappearing in all patients. Seven patients who refused GFD were reevaluated 8 to 12 months later. Symptoms and histologic lesions were unchanged in six, all of whom refused again to adhere to a GFD. One of the seven with Marsh I lesions had a worsening of symptoms and of histologic lesions (from Marsh I to Marsh IIIa); so, this last patient adhered to a GFD.

Conclusions Symptoms disappeared after GFD in patients suspected to have celiac disease but with slight histologic lesions. Although Marsh I-II lesions cannot be classified as celiac lesions (ESPGAN criteria), the patients' symptoms at presentation and the clear improvement of symptoms when on GFD, with or without improvement of histologic lesions, supports the assumption that these patients are sensitive to gluten and may justify treatment with a GFD.

From the Department of Emergency, “L. Bonomo” Hospital, Andria (BA), Italy (A.T.); and the Department of Internal Medicine, Digestive Endoscopy Unit, “Cristo Re” Hospital, Rome, Italy.

Received February 12, 2002.

Accepted July 2, 2002.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. Antonio Tursi, Galleria Pisani, 4 70031 Andria (BA), Italy. E-mail:

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.