Whipple’s disease: a fatal mimic





Autopsy, Communicable Diseases, Pathology, Polymerase Chain Reaction, Tropheryma


Whipple’s Disease, a rare diagnosis caused by the slow-growing bacterium Tropheryma whipplei, most often presents with the classically described signs of malabsorption due to gastrointestinal colonization. However, it can also have signs and symptoms that clinically overlap with rheumatic diseases, potentially resulting in misdiagnosis. Furthermore, treatment with modern potent biologic immunosuppressive agents and classic disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can lead to serious exacerbation of undiagnosed infections. We present the case of a middle-aged woman with long term complaints of arthalgias, who was diagnosed with seronegative rheumatoid arthritis and subsequently treated for almost 7 years with such immunosuppressive therapies. The patient’s disease course included chronic diarrhea that abruptly intensified and culminated in fatal hypovolemic shock/sepsis. A diagnosis of WD was made by autopsy examination, wherein several organ systems were found to be heavily involved by Tropheryma whipplei organisms, and their identification was confirmed with histochemical and molecular evaluation. Notably, most bacterial organisms were located deeply in the submucosa/muscularis of affected organs, a practical reminder to practicing pathologists that challenges the classic histopathologic description of Whipple disease as an infiltration of predominantly lamina propria, and the potential for sampling bias in typically superficial endoscopic biopsies during routine procedures.


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How to Cite

Kukull, B., Mahlow, J., Hale, G., & Perry, L. J. (2021). Whipple’s disease: a fatal mimic. Autopsy and Case Reports, 11, e2020237. https://doi.org/10.4322/acr.2020.237



Autopsy Case Report