Haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is a rare, fatal disorder of early infancy. Mutations of the PRF1 gene have been identified in a subset of patients. However, the distinction between the different genetically determined and environmental subtypes of the disease remains a major issue to be solved. This may result in delayed or inappropriate application of bone marrow transplantation (BMT). We propose an algorithm that uses a combination of three rapid laboratory tests, i.e. perforin expression by peripheral lymphocytes, assessment of the behaviour of the 2B4 lymphocyte receptor and natural killer (NK) cell activity, to identify the different subgroups of HLH. In 19 patients diagnosed according to current criteria, we tested perforin expression, 2B4 receptor function and NK cell activity. PRF1 mutations were found in all seven patients showing absent perforin expression. In one male with abnormal behaviour of the 2B4 receptor, SH2D1A mutation confirmed the diagnosis of X-linked lymphoproliferative disease. Four patients with normal NK cell activity had evidence of associated infections. Of the seven with impaired NK cell activity, two had a probable genetically determined subtype of HLH and five appeared as sporadic, infection-associated cases. Improving the diagnostic approach may restrict the use of BMT, the only recognized curative treatment, to HLH patients with a documented poor prognosis while patients with milder disorders may be treated less intensively. Our flow chart could also lead to better selection of patients for specific gene analysis.
- Natural killer
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