Open Access

Sepsis biomarkers: a review

Critical Care201014:R15

DOI: 10.1186/cc8872

Received: 10 July 2009

Accepted: 9 February 2010

Published: 9 February 2010

Abstract

Introduction

Biomarkers can be useful for identifying or ruling out sepsis, identifying patients who may benefit from specific therapies or assessing the response to therapy.

Methods

We used an electronic search of the PubMed database using the key words "sepsis" and "biomarker" to identify clinical and experimental studies which evaluated a biomarker in sepsis.

Results

The search retrieved 3370 references covering 178 different biomarkers.

Conclusions

Many biomarkers have been evaluated for use in sepsis. Most of the biomarkers had been tested clinically, primarily as prognostic markers in sepsis; relatively few have been used for diagnosis. None has sufficient specificity or sensitivity to be routinely employed in clinical practice. PCT and CRP have been most widely used, but even these have limited ability to distinguish sepsis from other inflammatory conditions or to predict outcome.

Introduction

Sepsis is a leading cause of death in critically ill patients despite the use of modern antibiotics and resuscitation therapies [1]. The septic response is an extremely complex chain of events involving inflammatory and anti-inflammatory processes, humoral and cellular reactions and circulatory abnormalities [2, 3]. The diagnosis of sepsis and evaluation of its severity is complicated by the highly variable and non-specific nature of the signs and symptoms of sepsis [4]. However, the early diagnosis and stratification of the severity of sepsis is very important, increasing the possibility of starting timely and specific treatment [5, 6].

Biomarkers can have an important place in this process because they can indicate the presence or absence or severity of sepsis [7, 8], and can differentiate bacterial from viral and fungal infection, and systemic sepsis from local infection. Other potential uses of biomarkers include roles in prognostication, guiding antibiotic therapy, evaluating the response to therapy and recovery from sepsis, differentiating Gram-positive from Gram-negative microorganisms as the cause of sepsis, predicting sepsis complications and the development of organ dysfunction (heart, kidneys, liver or multiple organ dysfunction). However, the exact role of biomarkers in the management of septic patients remains undefined [9]. C-reactive protein (CRP) has been used for many years [10, 11] but its specificity has been challenged [12]. Procalcitonin (PCT) has been proposed as a more specific [13] and better prognostic [14] marker than CRP, although its value has also been challenged [15]. It remains difficult to differentiate sepsis from other non-infectious causes of systemic inflammatory response syndrome [16], and there is a continuous search for better biomarkers of sepsis.

With this background in mind, we reviewed the literature on sepsis biomarkers that have been used in clinical or experimental studies to help better evaluate their utility.

Materials and methods

The entire Medline database was searched in February 2009 using the key words 'sepsis' and 'biomarker'. All studies, both clinical and experimental, which evaluated a biomarker were included. For each identified biomarker, the Medline database was searched again using the biomarker name and the key word 'biomarker'.

Results

A total of 3370 studies that assessed a biomarker in sepsis were retrieved; 178 different biomarkers were evaluated in the 3370 studies. The retrieved biomarkers and the major findings from key studies using these biomarkers are listed in Tables 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Of the 178 biomarkers, 18 had been evaluated in experimental studies only, 58 in both experimental and clinical studies, and 101 in clinical studies only. Thirty-four biomarkers were identified that have been assessed for use specifically in the diagnosis of sepsis (Table 10); of these just five reported sensitivity and specificity values greater than 90%.
Table 1

Cytokine/chemokine biomarkers identified in the literature search (with some selected references)

Sepsis marker

Evaluated in experimental studies

Evaluated in clinical studies

Evaluated as a prognostic factor

Comment

GRO-alpha [49, 50]

C (m)

Higher in septic shock than in sepsis

High mobility group-box 1 protein (HMGB-1) [51, 52]

C

No difference between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

IL-1 receptor antagonist [5355]

A

Correlation with SOFA score

IL-1β [56, 57]

A

 

Increased in septic compared with non-septic individuals

IL-2 [58]

 

B

Increased in parallel with disease severity

IL-4 [59]

 

C (s)

Increased levels associated with development of sepsis

IL-6 [48, 60]

B

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

IL-8 [61, 62]

 

B

√***

Prediction of MOF, DIC

IL-10 [6365]

B

√**

Higher in septic shock than sepsis, distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

IL-12 [66, 67]

C

Predictive of lethal outcome from postoperative sepsis

IL-13 [68, 69]

B

Higher in septic shock than sepsis

IL-18 [37, 70]

B(s)

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Macrophage inflammatory protein (MIP)-1 and- 2 [71, 72]

A

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) [42, 73]

A

√**

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Monocyte chemotactic protein (MCP)-1 and 2 [42, 74]

B

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Osteopontin [75]

 

B

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

RANTES [76, 77]

B

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

TNF [78, 79]

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days in patients with septic shock

*sensitivity and specificity of less than 90%; **sensitivity of more than 90% but specificity of less than 90%; ***sensitivity and specificity more than 90%; A, Clinical study with less than 20 patients; B, Clinical study with 20 to 50 patients; C, Clinical study with more than 50 patients; (s), surgical patients only; (m), medical patients only.

DIC: disseminated intravascular coagulopathy; MOF: multiple organ failure; SOFA: sequential organ failure assessment.

Table 2

Cell marker biomarkers identified in the literature search (with some selected references)

Sepsis Marker

Evaluated in experimental studies

Evaluated in clinical studies

Evaluated as a prognostic factor

Comment

CD10 [80, 81]

A

 

Decreased in septic shock compared with healthy controls

CD11b [82, 83]

B(s)

Correlation with SOFA score

CD11c [84]

 

A

 

Decreased in septic shock compared with healthy controls

CD14 (cellular and soluble) [85]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

CD18 [86]

   

CD25 (cellular and soluble) [87]

 

A

 

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

CD28 (soluble) [88]

 

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

CD40 (cellular and soluble) [89]

 

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

CD48 [90]

 

B

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

CD64 [91]

 

B

Correlation with APACHE II and SOFA scores

CD69 [92]

 

A

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

CD80 [88]

 

B

Predicted development of septic shock

CD163 (soluble) [93]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

mHLA-DR (soluble) [94]

 

C

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days in patients with septic shock

*sensitivity and specificity of less than 90%; A, Clinical study with less than 20 patients; B, Clinical study with 20 to 50 patients; C, Clinical study with more than 50 patients; (s), surgical patients only.

APACHE: acute physiology and chronic health evaluation; SOFA: sequential organ failure assessment.

Table 3

Receptor biomarkers identified in the literature search (with some selected references)

Sepsis marker

Evaluated in experimental studies

Evaluated in clinical studies

Evaluated as a prognostic factor

Comment

CC chemokine receptor (CCR) 2 [95]

   

CCR 3 [96]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

C5L2 [97]

B

Predicted development of MOF

CRTh2 [98]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Fas receptor (soluble) [99]

 

B(m)

Predicted development of MOF

Fc-gamma RIII [100]

 

A

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls, correlated with APACHE II score

FLT-1 (soluble) [101, 102]

C

Correlated with APACHE II score

GP130 [103]

 

A

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

IL-2 receptor (soluble) [104]

 

C

Predicted development of septic shock

Group II phospholipase A2 (PLA2-II) (soluble) [105, 106]

B

 

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

RAGE (soluble) [107]

 

B

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

ST2 (soluble, IL-1 receptor) [108]

 

A(s)

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Toll-like receptor (TLR) 2 and 4 [109]

B

Increased in septic compared with non-septic critically ill patients

Transient receptor potential vanilloid (TRPV)1 [110]

   

TREM-1 (soluble) [111, 112]

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

TNF-receptor (soluble) [113]

 

B

 

Predicted development of MOF

Urokinase type plasminogen activator receptor (uPAR) (soluble) [114]

 

C(m)

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

*sensitivity and specificity of less than 90%; A, Clinical study with less than 20 patients; B, Clinical study with 20 to 50 patients; C, Clinical study with more than 50 patients; (s), surgical patients only; (m), medical patients only.

APACHE: acute physiology and chronic health evaluation; MOF: multiple organ failure; TREM: triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cells; RAGE: receptor for advanced glycation end-products.

Table 4

Coagulation biomarkers identified in the literature search (with some selected references)

Sepsis marker

Evaluated in experimental studies

Evaluated in clinical studies

Evaluated as a prognostic factor

Comment

Antithrombin [115]

B

√**

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT) [35]

 

C

Correlated with MOF score in patients with sepsis and DIC, high negative predictive value

D-dimers, TAT, F1.2, PT [116]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated with APACHE II score

Fibrin [36]

 

C

 

Increased in patients with Gram-negative bacteremia

PF-4 [117]

 

A

Predicted response to therapy

Plasminogen activator inhibitor (PAI)-1 [118, 119]

 

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, predicted development of MOF

Protein C and S [120, 121]

C

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Thrombomodulin [122, 123]

C

Predicted development of MOF, DIC, and response to therapy

*sensitivity and specificity of less than 90%; **sensitivity of more than 90% but specificity of less than 90%; A, Clinical study with less than 20 patients; B, Clinical study with 20 to 50 patients; C, Clinical study with more than 50 patients.

APCHE: acute physiology and chronic health evaluation; DIC: disseminated intravascular coagulopathy; MOF: multiple organ failure; PT: prothrombin time; PF: platelet factor; TAT: thrombin-antithrombin complex.

Table 5

Biomarkers related to vascular endothelial damage identified in the literature search (with some selected references)

Sepsis marker

Evaluated in experimental studies

Evaluated in clinical studies

Evaluated as a prognostic factor

Comment

ADAMTS-13 [124, 125]

B

Decreased in septic patients with DIC compared with no DIC

Angiopoietin (1 and 2) [126]

 

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Endocan [127, 128]

B

Predicted development of septic shock

Endothelial leukocyte adhesion molecule (ELAM)-1 (cellular and soluble) [129, 130]

B(s)

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Endothelial progenitor cells (cEPC) [131]

 

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Intracellular adhesion molecule (ICAM)-1 (soluble) [38]

B(m)

 

Laminin [132]

 

A

 

Increased in sepsis compared with non-infected controls

Neopterin [133, 134]

C

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF)-BB [135]

 

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days in patients with severe sepsis

E-Selectin (cellular and soluble) [123, 136]

C

Predicted development of MOF, correlated with SAPS score

L-Selectin (soluble) [137]

 

C

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

P-Selectin [138]

   

Vascular cell adhesion molecule (VCAM)-1 [139, 140]

C

 

Predicted development of MOF

Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) [141, 142]

A

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, predicted development of MOF

von Willebrand factor and antigen [143, 144]

 

B(m)

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, predicted development of acute lung injury

*sensitivity and specificity of less than 90%; A, Clinical study with less than 20 patients; B, Clinical study with 20 to 50 patients; C, Clinical study with more than 50 patients; (s), surgical patients only; (m), medical patients only.

DIC: disseminated intravascular coagulopathy; MOF: meultiple organ failure; SAPS: simplified acute physiology score.

Table 6

Biomarkers related to vaosdilation identified in the literature search (with some selected references)

Sepsis marker

Evaluated in experimental studies

Evaluated in clinical studies

Evaluated as a prognostic factor

Comment

Adrenomedullin and pro-adrenomedullin [145, 146]

 

B

√*

Predicted development of septic shock

Anandamide [147]

A

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) (activity and serum) [148, 149]

B

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

2-arachidonoylglycerol [150]

 

A

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Copeptin [151]

 

C(m)

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated with APACHE II score

C-type natriuretic peptide (CNP) [152]

 

A

 

Increased in patients with septic shock compared with healthy controls

Cycling nucleotides [153, 154]

A(m)

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Elastin [155]

 

B

 

Decreased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

cGRP [156, 157]

C(s)

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated with APACHE II score

47 kD HK [158]

 

B(m)

 

Correlated with severity of sepsis

Neuropeptide Y [159, 160]

A

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Nitric oxide (NO), nitrate, nitrite [161, 162]

B

Predicted development of septic shock

Substance P [156, 163]

C(s)

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days (predictive only in the late phase of sepsis, 2 days before death)

Tetrahydrobiopterin [164, 165]

 

A

 

Increased in sepsis compared with non-septic critically ill patients

Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) [166, 167]

A

 

Increased in tissue samples from patients with peritonitis compared with no peritonitis

*sensitivity and specificity of less than 90%; A, Clinical study with less than 20 patients; B, Clinical study with 20 to 50 patients; C, Clinical study with more than 50 patients; (s), surgical patients only; (m), medical patients only.

APACHE: acute physiology and chornic health evaluation; cGRP: calcitonin gene-related peptide; HK: high-molecular weight kininogen.

Table 7

Biomarkers of organ dysfunction identified in the literature search (with some selected references)

Sepsis marker

Evaluated in experimental studies

Evaluated in clinical studies

Evaluated as a prognostic factor

Comment

Atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) [168, 169]

 

C

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) [170172]

 

B

√**

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated to APACHE II score

Carbomyl phosphate synthase (CPS)-1 [173]

   

Endothelin-1 and pro-endothelin-1 [174177]

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated with SOFA score

Filterable cardiodepressant substance (FCS) [178]

   

Gc-globulin [179]

 

C(s)

 

Predicted development of MOF

Glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) [180]

 

B

Increased in septic shock compared with healthy controls

alpha glutathione S-transferase (GST) [181]

   

Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) (cellular and soluble) [182, 183]

C(m)

 

Predicted response to therapy

MEGX test [184, 185]

A

Correlated with SAPS II score

Myocardial angiotensin II [186]

   

NSE [187]

 

B

Correlated with SOFA scores

Pancreatitis-associated protein-I [188]

   

Pre B cell colony-enhancing factor (PBEF) [189]

 

A

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Protein S-100b [187, 190]

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated with SOFA score

Surfactant protein (A, B, C, D) [191, 192]

A

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Troponin [193]

 

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated with APACHE II score

*sensitivity and specificity of less than 90%; **sensitivity of more than 90% but specificity of less than 90%; A, Clinical study with less than 20 patients; B, Clinical study with 20 to 50 patients; C, Clinical study with more than 50 patients; (s), surgical patients only; (m), medical patients only.

APACHE: acute physiology and chronic health evaluation; MEGX: monoethylglycinexylidide; MOF: multiple organ failure; NSE: neuron-specific enolase; SAPS: simplified acute physiology score; SOFA: sequential organ failure assessment.

Table 8

Acute phase protein biomarkers identified in the literature search (with some selected references)

Sepsis Marker

Evaluated in experimental studies

Evaluated in clinical studies

Evaluated as a prognostic factor

Comment

Serum amyloid A (SAA) [194, 195]

B(s)

Correlated with CRP in patients with septic shock

Ceruloplasmin [196, 197]

 

A

Predicted liver dysfunction in patients with sepsis

C-reactive protein (CRP) [11, 198, 199]

 

C

√*

Predicted response to therapy

Ferritin [200]

 

B(m)

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated with SOFA score

Alpha1-acid glycoprotein [201, 202]

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated with SOFA score

Hepcidin [203]

 

B

 

Incraesed in sepsis compared with healthy controls and patients with chronic renal failure

Lipopolysaccharide binding protein (LBP) [39, 204]

C(s)

Higher in sepsis compared with no sepsis, no prognostic value

Procalcitonin [21, 134, 205]

C

√*

Increased in infected compared with non-infected patients

Pentraxin 3 [206, 207]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated with APACHE II score

*sensitivity and specificity of less than 90%; A, Clinical study with less than 20 patients; B, Clinical study with 20 to 50 patients; C, Clinical study with more than 50 patients; (s), surgical patients only; (m), medical patients only.

APACHE: acute physiology and chronic health evaluation; SOFA: sequential organ failure assessment.

Table 9

Other biomarkers identified in the literature search (with some selected references)

Sepsis marker

Evaluated in experimental studies

Evaluated in clinical studies

Evaluated as a prognostic factor

Comment

Alpha2 macroglobulin [196, 208]

   

Albumin [209]

   

Anti-endotoxin core antibodies (EndoCab) [210]

 

A

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Apolipoprotein CI [211213]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Bcl-2 [214]

 

A

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Beta-thromboglobulin [215]

 

B

Predicted response to therapy

Caspase-1 [216]

 

A

 

Increased in septic shock compared with healthy controls

Ceramide [217]

 

B

√**

Predicted development of MOF

Cholesterol [218]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days in patients with severe sepsis

Complement (C3, C4, C5a levels) [219, 220]

 

B(m)

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Terminal complement complex [221]

   

Dendritic cell [222, 223]

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlated with SOFA score

Dipeptidylpeptidase [224]

 

B

 

Decreased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Diiodotyrosine (DIT) [225]

 

C

Increased in sepsis compared with non-septic critically ill

Eicosanoid [226, 227]

A(s)

Correlated with SAPS score, predicted response to therapy

Elastase [228, 229]

C(s)

Predicted response to therapy in patients with joint infections

Elastase-a1-antitrypsin complex [230, 231]

 

C

Predicted response to therapy

Erythropoietin [232]

 

A

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days in patients with septic shock, correlated with lactate levels

F2 isoprostanes [233]

 

B(m)

Increased in infected diabetic patients compared with non-infected diabetics

Fatty acid amide hydrolase [234]

 

A

Decreased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Free DNA [235]

 

B

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

G-CSF and GM-CSF [236, 237]

 

B

√**

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Gelsolin [238]

 

B(s)

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Ghrelin [239, 240]

   

Growth arrest specific protein (Gas) 6 [241]

 

B

Correlated with APACHE II score in patients with severe sepsis

Heat shock protein (HSP)70, 72, 73, 90 and 32 [242245]

C(s)

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

HDL cholesterol

 

C

√**

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, predicted polonged ICU length of stay

HLA-G5 protein (soluble) [246]

 

C(m)

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days in patients with septic shock

H2S [247]

   

Hyaluronan [248, 249]

B

 

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days in patients with septic shock

Hydrolytic IgG antibodies [250]

 

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlation with SAPS II score

Inter-alpha inhibitor proteins (IalphaIp) [251]

 

C

Predicted development of MOF

Intracellular nitric oxide in leukocyte [252]

 

B

Negatively correlated with SOFA score

IP-10 [30]

 

C

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Lactate [253, 254]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, predicted response to therapy

Lactoferrin [255, 256]

C(s)

 

Predicted response to therapy

Leptin [240, 257]

B

No prognostic value, higher in septic than in non-septic ICU patients

Serum lysozyme (enzyme activity) [258]

 

B(s)

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Matrix-metalloproteinase (MMP)-9 [259]

 

B

 

Increased in severe sepsis compared with healthy controls

Microparticles (cell derived) [252]

 

B

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, correlation with SOFA score

Neurotensin [260]

   

Nitrate excretion (urinary and expired) [261]

   

Nociceptin/orphanin FQ (N/OFQ) [262]

 

A

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

NF-κB (activity and expression) [263]

 

B

√**

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days in patients with severe sepsis, correlation with APACHE II score

Nucleosomes [264]

 

C

 

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Peptidoglycan [265]

 

B(s)

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

PlGF [266]

   

Plasma amino acids [267269]

 

A

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days, predicted development of MOF

Plasma fibronectin [270]

 

B

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Plasmin alpha2-antiplasmin complex [271]

 

C

 

Predicted development of MOF

Renin [272]

 

B

Correlation with lactate levels in patients with septic shock

Resistin [273]

 

C

Correlation with APACHE II score in patients with severe sepsis

Selenium [274]

 

C

Correlation with APACHE II in patients with severe sepsis

Selenoprotein P [275]

 

B

 

Decraesed in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Serum bicarbonate [276]

 

A(m)

Predicted development of septic shock in neutropenic patients

Sphingomyelinase (enzyme activity) [277]

 

A

 

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days in patients with severe sepsis

Sulfite [278]

B(m)

Predicted response to therapy

Transforming growth factor (TGF)-β1 [279, 280]

A(m)

 

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

TIMP-1 and 2 [259]

 

B

√*

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

TIMP-3 [281]

   

Uric acid [282]

 

C(s)

Decreased in postoperative patients with sepsis compared with those with no sepsis

Urinary 8-OhdG [283]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

Urinary bilirubin oxidative metabolites (BOMs) [284]

 

A

Correlation with APACHE II score

Annexin V binding [285]

B(s)

 

Increased in sepsis compared with healthy controls

Xanthine oxidase (activity) [286]

 

C

Distinguished between survivors and non-survivors at 28 days

*sensitivity and specificity of less than 90%; **sensitivity of more than 90% but specificity of less than 90%; A, Clinical study with less than 20 patients; B, Clinical study with 20 to 50 patients; C, Clinical study with more than 50 patients; (s), surgical patients only; (m), medical patients only.

APACHE: acute physiology and chronic health evalution; G-CSF: granulocyte colony-stimulating factor; GM-CSF: granulocyte-macrophage colony stimulating factor; MOF: multiple organ failure; NF-κB: nuclear factor kappa B; PlGF: placental growth factor; SAPS: simplified acute physiology score; SOFA: sequential organ failure assessment; TIMP: tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase.

Table 10

Biomarkers that have been assessed for use in the diagnosis of sepsis

 

Sepsis biomarker

Clinical study

Type of measurement

Outcome

1

aPTT**[35]

C

c

High negative predictive value

2

CD11b***[33]

B

s

Higher values in neonates with sepsis than in those with possible infection

3

CD25[87]

A

s

Distinguished between sepsis and SIRS

4

CD64***[32, 287]

C

s

Low sensitivity and specificity to distinguish between viral and bacterial infections

5

Complement (C3, C4, C5a)[219]

B

s

Distinguished between sepsis and SIRS

6

EA complex[230]

C

s

Diagnosis of sepsis, increased earlier than CRP

7

ELAM-1 (cellular and soluble)[129]

C(s)

c

Increased in trauma patients with sepsis compared with no sepsis

8

Endocan [127]

B

s

Distinguished between sepsis and SIRS

9

E-Selectin (cellular and soluble)[136]

B

s

Distinguished between sepsis and SIRS

10

Fibrin degradation products[36]

B

s

High negative predictive value

11

Gas6[241]

B

s

Higher values in patients with severe sepsis compared with patients with organ failure but no sepsis

12

G-CSF[237]

C

s

Distinguished between sepsis and SIRS

13

Gelsolin[238]

B(s)

c

Higher in septic patients compared with patients without sepsis

14

IL-1 receptor antagonist[55]

C

s

Early diagnosis of sepsis before symptoms in newborns

15

IL-8*[61]

C

s

Higher in septic neutropenic patients compared with febril neutropenic patients without sepsis

16

IL-10[65]

A

s

Higher in septic shock compared with cardiogenic shock

17

IL-12***[29]

C

s

Diagnosis of sepsis in pediatric patients

18

IL-18[70]

B(s)

s

Distinguished between Gram-positive and Gram-negative sepsis. Higher in trauma patients with sepsis than in those without

19

IP-10***[30]

C

s

Early diagnosis of sepsis in newborns

20

Laminin[38]

A

s

Distinguished between Candida sepsis and bacterial sepsis

21

LBP[204]

C

s

Distinguished between Gram-positive sepsis and Gram-negative

22

MCP-1[61]

C

s

Distinguished between sepsis and SIRS in neutropenic pediatric patients

23

NO, nitrate, nitrite[161]

B

s

Higher in septic shock compared with cardiogenic shock

24

Osteopontin[75]

B

s

Distinguished between sepsis and SIRS

25

PAI-1[118]

B

s

Higher in patients with sepsis and DIC compared with no-septic patients with DIC

26

Pentraxin 3[207]

C

s

Distinguished between septic shock and SIRS

27

Peptidoglycan[262]

B(s)

c

Higher in postoperative patients with infection compared with no-infected postoperative patients

28

pFN[270]

B

s

Distinguished between sepsis and SIRS

29

PLA2-II (soluble)***[31]

B

s

Distinguished between bacteremic and non-bacteremic infections

30

Serum lysozyme (enzyme activity)[258]

B

s

Distinguished between sepsis and organ rejection in transplanted patients

31

ST2 (soluble)[108]

A

s

Higher in septic patients compared with those with no sepsis

32

Surfactant protein (A, B, C, D)[192]

B

s

Early diagnosis of ARDS in septic patients

33

TREM-1 (soluble)[288, 289]

C

s

Distinguished between sepsis and SIRS, diagnosed pneumonia

34

Troponin[193]

B

s

Diagnosis of myocardial dysfunction in septic patients

*sensitivity and specificity of less than 90%; **sensitivity of more than 90% but specificity of less than 90%; ***sensitivity and specificity more than 90%; A, Clinical study with less than 20 patients; B, Clinical study with 20 to 50 patients; C, Clinical study with more than 50 patients; (s), surgical patients only; (m), medical patients only; s, single value; c, values over time.

aPTT: activated partial thromboplastin time; ARDS: acute respiratory distress syndrome; CRP: C-reactive protein; DIC: disseminated intravascular coagulopathy; EA: elastase alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor; ELAM: endothelial leukocyte adhesion molecule; G-CSF: granulocyte colony-stimulating factor; IP: interferon-induced protein; LBP: lipopolysaccharide-binding protein; MCP: monocyte chemotactic protein; NO: nitric oxide; PAI: plasminogen activator inhibitor; pFN: plasma fibronectin; PLA2: phospholipase A2; SIRS: systemic inflammatory response syndrome; TREM: triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cells.

Discussion

A multitude of biomarkers has been proposed in the field of sepsis, many more than in other disease processes; for example, a study of patients with myocardial infarction revealed 14 biomarkers suitable for diagnosis and determination of prognosis [17] and in patients with Alzheimer's disease, just 8 biomarkers were identified [18]. This large difference in the numbers of biomarkers for sepsis is likely to be related to the very complex pathophysiology of sepsis, which involves many mediators of inflammation [19], but also other pathophysiological mechanisms. Coagulation, complement, contact system activation, inflammation, and apoptosis are all involved in the sepsis process, and separate markers for each (part of each) system have been proposed (Tables 1 to 9). Additionally, the systemic nature of sepsis and the large numbers of cell types, tissues and organs involved expand the number of potential biomarker candidates, compared with disease processes that involve individual organs or are more localized.

It is interesting to note that most of the biomarkers we identified have been tested clinically and not experimentally. This is likely to be in part related to difficulties creating an experimental model that accurately reflects all aspects of human sepsis, problems with species differences, and problems in determining end-points in animal studies. Additionally, as the sepsis response varies with time, the exact time period during which any specific biomarker may be useful varies, and this is difficult to assess reliably in experimental models. Moreover, as there is no 'gold standard' for the diagnosis of sepsis, the effectiveness of a biomarker needs to be compared with current methods used to diagnose and monitor sepsis in everyday clinical practice, i.e., by the combination of clinical signs and available laboratory variables [20]; experimental models cannot be used for this purpose.

Our study revealed that there are many more potential biomarkers for sepsis than are currently used in clinical studies. Some of these markers may require considerable time, effort and costs to measure. Some are already routinely used for other purposes and easily obtained, such as coagulation tests or cholesterol concentrations. In many cases, the reliability and validity of the proposed biomarker have not been tested properly [8]. Of the many proposed markers for sepsis, acute phase proteins have perhaps been most widely assessed. PCT has been used particularly extensively in recent years. The specificity and sensitivity of PCT for the diagnosis of sepsis is relatively low (typically below 90%), regardless of the cut-off value [21, 22]. Raised PCT levels have also been reported in other conditions associated with inflammatory response, such as trauma [23], major surgery [24] and cardiac surgery [25]. Although CRP is often reported as inferior compared with PCT in terms of sepsis diagnosis, it is frequently used in clinical practice because of its greater availability. Elevated concentrations of serum CRP are correlated with an increased risk of organ failure and death [26], and the study of its time course may be helpful to evaluate the response to therapy in septic patients [11].

Another group of compounds that has been widely assessed as potential biomarkers are the cytokines. These are important mediators in the pathophysiology of sepsis, and most are produced fairly rapidly after sepsis onset. In a clinical study, levels of TNF and IL-10 were increased within the first 24 hours after admission of the patient [27]. However, blood cytokine concentrations are rather erratic and their time course is not clearly in concert with the course of sepsis [27, 28], making interpretation difficult.

The diagnosis of sepsis is a challenge. Clinical and standard laboratory tests are not very helpful because most critically ill patients develop some degree of inflammatory response, whether or not they have sepsis. Even microbiological assessment is unreliable because many culture samples do not yield microorganisms in these patients. However, biomarkers have also not been shown to be a great asset in the diagnosis of sepsis. Indeed, relatively few biomarkers have been evaluated as diagnostic markers (Table 10). Our search retrieved only 10 biomarkers that have been assessed for their ability to distinguish septic patients from non-septic patients with systemic immune response syndrome. However, none of these biomarkers has been tested for both sensitivity and specificity, and there is therefore no biomarker clearly identified as being able to differentiate sepsis syndrome from an inflammatory response due to other causes.

Early diagnosis of sepsis is also an important issue as early institution of appropriate therapy, including antibiotics, is associated with improved outcomes. We identified 16 factors that have been evaluated specifically for the early diagnosis of sepsis; five of these had reported sensitivity and specificity of more than 90%. IL-12 was measured in newborns at the time when sepsis was first suspected clinically and was higher in patients with sepsis than in those without [29]. Interferon-induced protein 10 (IP-10) was higher in neonates with sepsis and necrotizing enterocolitis than in neonates who had only necrotizing enterocolitis [30]. These two biomarkers have not been evaluated for this purpose in adults. Group II phospholipase 2 (PLA2-II) was reported to have high sensitivity and specificity for the diagnosis of bacteremia in critically ill adult patients within 24 hours after admission [31]. CD64 had high sensitivity and specificity for the early diagnosis of sepsis in adults, but could not reliably distinguish viral from bacterial infections, or local infection from systemic sepsis [32]. Neutrophil CD11b could distinguish septic pediatric patients from those with possible infection with good sensitivity and specificity [33]. The sensitivity and specificity of the other 11 biomarkers used to diagnose early sepsis were not reported or were less than 90%.

Biomarkers can be more useful to rule out sepsis than to rule it in. We identified three biomarkers with high negative predictive value to rule out sepsis: PCT (99% at a cut-off value of 0.2 ng/ml) [34]; activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT) waveform (96%) [35]; and fibrin degradation products (100% for Gram-negative sepsis by ELISA assay) [36]. It is important to emphasize that culture-positive sepsis was generally used as the gold standard in all these studies, although cultures may remain negative in many patients with sepsis.

The majority of the biomarkers that we identified in our search were assessed for their ability to differentiate patients likely to survive from those likely to die. Indeed, any biomarker is expected to have some prognostic value and sepsis biomarkers are no exception; however, this is not an absolute rule because some sepsis biomarkers failed to have prognostic value [3739]. Moreover, sensitivity and specificity were tested in only some of the proposed prognostic markers, and none had sufficient (more than 90%) sensitivity and specificity to predict which patients were at greater risk of dying due to sepsis. Other biomarkers were assessed for their ability to predict the development of multiple organ failure and to evaluate response to therapy. It is known that the extent of infection and the severity of organ failure has a significant impact on the prognosis of patients with sepsis. Additionally, the response to therapy varies among patients. Recently, the PIRO model has been proposed as a way of stratifying septic patients according to their Predisposing condition, the severity of Infection, the Response to therapy and the degree of Organ dysfunction [20]. In the future, sepsis biomarkers may contribute to this model of classification rather than just being used as prognostic markers.

No biomarker has, therefore, established itself sufficiently to be of great help to clinicians in everyday clinical practice. As each biomarker has limited sensitivity and specificity, it may be interesting to combine several biomarkers [40, 41]; however, this hypothesis requires further study. A clinical study showed that the combination of aPTT waveform with PCT increased the specificity of the aPTT waveform in the diagnosis of sepsis [35]. Studies using panels of sepsis biomarkers have also provided encouraging results [4244]. The cost-effectiveness of all these methods must also be evaluated.

In this study, we tried to categorize the sepsis biomarkers according to their pathophysiological role in sepsis. A useful sepsis marker must not only help to identify or rule out sepsis, but it should also be able to be used to guide therapy. It has been shown that using PCT levels to guide therapy reduces antibiotic use and may be associated with improved outcomes [45, 46]. The use of novel therapies that modify the pathophysiological process of sepsis may also be guided by biomarkers [47, 48]. A study is underway to evaluate the value of protein C levels to guide the administration of activated protein C (clinicaltrials.gov identifier NCT00386425). In the future, sepsis biomarkers may help us administer these therapies to the right patient at the right time.

Conclusions

Our literature review indicates that there are many biomarkers that can be used in sepsis, but none has sufficient specificity or sensitivity to be routinely employed in clinical practice. PCT and CRP have been most widely used, but even these have limited abilities to distinguish sepsis from other inflammatory conditions or to predict outcome. In view of the complexity of the sepsis response, it is unlikely that a single ideal biomarker will ever be found. A combination of several sepsis biomarkers may be more effective, but this requires further evaluation.

Key messages

• More than 170 different biomarkers have been assessed for potential use in sepsis, more for prognosis than for diagnosis.

• None has sufficient specificity or sensitivity to be routinely employed in clinical practice.

• Combinations of several biomarkers may be more effective than single biomarkers, but this requires further evaluation.

Abbreviations

aPTT: 

activated partial thromboplastin time

CRP: 

C-reactive protein

ELISA: 

enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay

IL: 

interleukin

IP-10: 

interferon-induced protein 10

PCT: 

procalcitonin

PLA2-II: 

group II phospholipase 2

TNF: 

tumor necrosis factor.

Declarations

Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Department of Intensive Care, Erasme Hospital, Université Libre de Bruxelles

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