Intestinal permeability to probe molecules has been shown to correlate closely with the presence or absence of villous atrophy in a jejunal biopsy. The purpose of this study was to establish if there exist groups of patients with functional derangement of intestinal permeability but normal histopathology of the small bowel mucosa. In 135 patients a cellobiose/mannitol permeability test was performed at the same time as jejunal biopsy. Diagnosis included coeliac disease, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, idiopathic diarrhoea, self diagnosed food allergy, atopic eczema and postinfectious malabsorption. The value of the cellobiose/mannitol test in identifying patients with abnormal jejunal biopsy histopathology was confirmed. The permeability test was abnormal in all 28 patients with partial or subtotal villous atrophy, and also in all 10 in whom there was a high intraepithelial lymphocyte count despite normal villi and crypts. Functional abnormality of the small intestine has not previously been reported in patients with this jejunal biopsy abnormality. Abnormalities of permeability were also found in patients with idiopathic diarrhoea, folate deficiency, postinfectious or traveller's diarrhoea, small bowel Crohn's disease, and atopic eczema. These results show that sugar permeability tests have more potential in clinical investigation than merely serving as screening tests before jejunal biopsy. There are groups of patients without morphological changes in the small bowel in whom intestinal permeability is abnormal.
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