Celiac.com 08/01/2008 - One of the particularly aggressive and deadly types of cancer associated with celiac disease in adults is known as Enteropathy-associated T-cell lymphoma (EATL), which is a T-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma that develops in the small bowel. So, if you haven’t heard of EATLs, you should know that while current estimates indicate that even though EATLs are rare overall, they are one of the most common causes of death in people with celiac disease.

One problem with studying EATLs is that the best statistical information regarding its prevalence is still based on estimates. Until recently, there had been no study made to determine the rate at which EATLs occur in the general population. A team of doctors based in the Netherlands recently set out to conduct such an assessment using the Dutch national network and patient registry of cyto- and histopathology reports (PALGA). The research team included Wieke H. M. Verbeek, Jolanda M. W. Van de Water, Abdulbaqi al-Toma, Joost J. Oudejans, Chris J. J. Mulder & Veerle M. H. Coupé.

The team looked at all T-cell lymphomas found from January 2000 to December 2006 that originated in the small bowel, and they computed some basic average rates of EATL occurrence for the Netherlands and worldwide, along with occurrence rates by gender and age. The team also factored in the location of the lymphoma, Marsh categorization for celiac disease, and the means by which the patients’ lymphomas were detected.

In people with celiac disease, eating wheat causes the wheat protein to trigger an adverse immune reaction that leads to inflammation of the intestinal lining, which can eventually cause the cells in the inflamed region to become cancerous. Even though celiac disease occurs twice as often in women as in men, men are far more likely to develop EATLs. Out of every 10 people who develop EATLs, only 2 to 5 of them have any obvious symptoms. Also, these statistics apply to untreated celiacs, and those diagnosed as adults, while people diagnosed as children and following a gluten-free diet have about the same rates of EATL as the general population.

Adults with untreated celiac disease are nearly 70 times more likely to die from lymphoma than people without celiac disease. Again, since more and more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease as adults, it’s important to get the clearest possible picture of the associated risks, especially when they are as serious as EATLs. The team also noted that most EATLs seemed to be centered in the proximal small intestine, and that diagnosis was generally made surgically.

The team looked at 116 incidents of EATL and found a rate in the general Dutch population of .10/100,000. This is about double the estimated western rate of about .05/100,000. For those over 50 years of age, the Dutch rate of EATL increased by a factor of 10 to 2.08/100,000, while over 60, the Dutch rate was 2.92/100,000. Still, in addition to afflicting almost only those with celiac disease, EATL seems to afflict mostly men. For those over 50, EATL rates were .09/100,000 for women, but nearly 3 times that, 2.95/100,000 for men.

One interesting part of the study was the acknowledgment by the doctors that increased cancer rates in celiacs have not been judged “sufficiently large” to warrant screening the general population that way some countries do. Instead, the doctors have adopted a strategy of checking patients with EATL for celiac disease. By their own admission, most patients with EATL have already been diagnosed with celiac disease. In any case, if you have a particularly deadly type of cancer it would seem a little late to test you for celiac disease. We at Celiac.com propose that a better strategy would be to test those with celiac disease for EATLs (and screen the general population for gluten intolerance).

This study drives home the importance of diagnosing and treating celiac disease as early as possible, and also reinforces the importance of faithfully following a gluten-free diet and getting regular follow-up biopsies and screening that would reveal an EATL.

Article citation:
Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology
Published on July 11, 2008
DOI: 10.1080/00365520802240222

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