Familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FHL) is a rare genetic disease that is inherited in an autosomal recessive manner. It results in the hyperactivation of macrophages and T lymphocytes. FHL is mainly diagnosed in early childhood.
Familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FHL) is a condition that is usually diagnosed in infants. In a minority of cases, the condition manifests later in childhood or adulthood .
FHL is also referred to as primary hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis and is a genetic disease inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern. It has been reported more frequently in children of consanguineous parents. Most cases of FHL results from mutations in the PRF1 (perforin 1) and UNC13D (unc-13 homolog D) genes . It is a contrast compared to secondary hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, which is often triggered by an inflammatory process such as an infection, malignancy, or by a low immunity. Manifestations result from the abnormal function of macrophages and T lymphocytes . The condition may prove fatal if untreated.
Because FHL affects numerous organ systems, there is a wide range of possible presenting manifestations. The typical clinical characteristics of FHL are a prolonged fever that is accompanied by hepatomegaly, elevated liver enzymes, cytopenias, and less commonly, a rash and lymphadenopathy. About half of patients have abnormal cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) findings . Neurological signs have also been described and can include increased or decreased tone, seizures, ataxia, cranial nerve palsies, and signs of raised intracranial pressure. Patients may also exhibit a reduced level of consciousness, neck stiffness, and loss of vision. Another defining feature of the disease is the phagocytosis of several lines of blood cells in the bone marrow by overactive histocytes.
In older individuals, the course of the illness may be acute, or gradual and recurrent, with some episodes resolving spontaneously. It is not uncommon for FHL to be misdiagnosed as an infection, as it can manifest with non-specific symptoms. Moreover, FHL has been reported to sometimes occur together with infections such as those caused by the herpes virus or Leishmania parasites .
The diagnosis of familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis is based on the clinical picture and genetic testing to detect mutations . Family history is important as patients may have siblings with the same disease, or siblings who died of an obscure illness or infection. Furthermore, if there is parental consanguinity, the diagnosis of FHL is even more likely. Clinical criteria as stipulated by the Histocyte Society must be met . According to the criteria, at least five of a given list of possible signs and symptoms should be present, namely prolonged fever lasting over 7 days, cytopenia of multiple blood lineages observed through peripheral smear, low hemoglobin, platelets or neutrophils, raised triglyceride levels, splenomegaly, fibrinogen less than 1.5 g/L, and hemophagocytosis.
Further investigations that can be carried out include:
The disease typically presents within the first year of life, however, cases of late presentations are being reported more frequently . Some literature suggests that the presence of fever, splenomegaly, and thrombocytopenia is enough to suspect FHL if leukemia has been eliminated as a possible alternative diagnosis .