Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis: pathogenesis and treatment

Gritta E Janka, Kai Lehmberg
Hematology—the Education Program of the American Society of Hematology 2013, 2013: 605-11
Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is not an independent disease but rather a life-threatening clinical syndrome that occurs in many underlying conditions and in all age groups. HLH is the consequence of a severe, uncontrolled hyperinflammatory reaction that in most cases is triggered by an infectious agent. Persistent stimulation of lymphocytes and histiocytes results in hypercytokinemia, leading to the characteristic symptoms of HLH. Genetic defects in familial HLH and in immunodeficiency syndromes associated with albinism affect the transport, processing, and function of cytotoxic granules in natural killer cells and cytotoxic T lymphocytes. This leads to defective killing of target cells and a failure to contract the immune response. The defects are increasingly found also in adolescents and adults. Acquired HLH occurs in autoinflammatory and autoimmune diseases (macrophage activation syndrome) and in patients with iatrogenic immunosuppression or with malignancies, but also in otherwise healthy persons with infections. Treatment of HLH aims at suppressing hypercytokinemia and eliminating the activated and infected cells. In genetic HLH, hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) is needed for the correction of the immune defect. Treatment modalities include immunosuppressive, immunomodulatory, and cytostatic drugs; T-cell antibodies; and anticytokine agents. Using immunochemotherapy, familial HLH, which had been invariably fatal, has become a curable disease with more than 50% survivors. Reduced intensity conditioning for HSCT, which is associated with less transplantation-related mortality, will further improve cure rates.

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