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Celiac Disease, Refractory

A small intestinal mucosa from a case of refractory coeliac disease immunostained sequentially for CD3 (alkaline phosphatase-blue) and CD8 (peroxidase-brown). Most intraepithelial lymphocytes are CD3+, CD8-.Courtesy pubcan.org

Mucosa  in refractory celiac  disease immunostained sequentially for CD3 (alkaline phosphatase-blue) and CD8 (peroxidase-brown). Most intraepithelial lymphocytes are CD3+, CD8-. Courtesy pubcan.org

What Is Refractory Celiac Disease?

Refractory celiac disease, formerly called refractory sprue, is a severe complication characterized by persistence of symptoms and intestinal inflammation despite gluten free diet after 12 months.1

Refractory celiac disease appears in two forms, ulcerative jejunitis (RCD I) and cryptic intestinal T-cell lymphoma (RCD II).

Patients with RCD I seem to profit from immunosuppressive treatment, but positive response to corticosteroid treatment does not exclude underlying enteropathy–associated T-cell lymphoma (EATL).

Patients with RCD II have a high percentage of abberant T-cells and is usually resistant to medical therapies. The presence of an aberrant clonal intraepithelial T-cell population has led to the designation of refractory celiac disease with this population as a cryptic intestinal T-cell lymphoma, characterized by frequent dissemination to the blood and the entire gastrointestinal lining.2

  • Refractory sprue may occur after an initial response to gluten free diet or without any evidence of preexisting celiac disease. All other causes of malabsorption must be excluded, such as collagenous colitis.
  • In a subgroup of patients with enteropathy-associated T-cell lymphoma (EATL) there is progressive deterioration of a refractory form of celiac disease. The prognosis is poor, although some patients respond to corticosteroids and immunosuppressive agents.3
  • A nationwide Finnish study showed that patients of male gender, older age, severe symptoms or seronegativity (negative antibody result) at the diagnosis of celiac disease are at risk of future refractory coeliac disease and should be followed up carefully.4
  • Chorea has been described as a paraneoplastic phenomenon in patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and has been described as associated with lymphoma arising from a background of refractory celiac disease. The finding of chorea in association with celiac disease should prompt a search for possible underlying intestinal T-cell lymphoma.5

How Prevalent Is Refractory Celiac Disease?


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  1. Murray JA, The widening spectrum of celiac disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Mar 1999;69 (3):354-365. 

  2. Culliford AN, Green PH. Refractory sprue. Current Gastroenterology Reports. Oct 2003;5(5):373-8. 

  3. Culliford AN, Green PH. Refractory sprue. Current Gastroenterology Reports. Oct 2003;5(5):373-8. 

  4. Ilus T, Kaukinen K, Virta LJ, Huhtala H, Mäki M, Kurppa K, Heikkinen M, Heikura M, Hirsi E, Jantunen K, Moilanen V, Nielsen C, Puhto M, Pölkki H, Vihriälä I, Collin P. Refractory coeliac disease in a country with a high prevalence of clinically-diagnosed coeliac disease. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2014 Feb;39(4):418-25. doi: 10.1111/apt.12606. 

  5. Kitiyakara T, Jackson M, Gorard DA. Refractory coeliac disease, small-bowel lymphoma and chorea. J R Soc Med. 2002 Mar;95(3):133-4.