Association between acute gastrointestinal injury and biomarkers of intestinal barrier function in critically ill patients
© The Author(s). 2017
Received: 18 November 2016
Accepted: 24 March 2017
Published: 29 March 2017
To assess the associations of biomarkers of intestinal barrier function and other clinical variables with acute gastrointestinal injury (AGI) grade, and of these clinical variables with mortality in critically ill patients.
This was a single-center, observational, prospective study. Patients were included if they were diagnosed with AGI and underwent tests for the measurement of plasma levels of intestinal fatty acid–binding protein (i-FABP), d-lactate (d-la), and lipopolysaccharide. General characteristics, AGI grades, Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation (APACHE) II scores, Sepsis-related Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) scores, intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), and 28-day mortality were recorded and compared among patients with different AGI grades.
Among the 90 included patients, the APACHE II score, IAP, and LPS and D-la levels significantly differed between the four AGI grades. Multinomial logistic regression analysis with grade I as the reference for grades II, III, and IV revealed that high APACHE II scores increased the odds of AGI grade III (odds ratio [OR], 1.754; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.225–2.511) and grade IV (OR, 1.493; 95% CI, 1.079–2.066). Similarly, IAP increased the odds of AGI grade III (OR, 1.622; 95% CI, 1.111–2.369) and grade IV (OR, 1.518; 95% CI, 1.066–2.162). Elevated D-la increased the odds of AGI grades II (OR, 1.059; 95% CI, 1.005–1.117), III (OR, 1.155; 95% CI, 1.052–2.268), and IV (OR, 1.088; 95% CI, 1.013–1.168). In contrast, i-FABP and LPS did not increase the odds of any AGI grade. SOFA scores could independently predict the odds of death in AGI patients (OR, 1.223; 95% CI, 1.007–1.485).
AGI patients exhibit loss of gastrointestinal barrier function, and d-la could serve as a better marker of AGI grade than i-FABP or lipopolysaccharide.
KeywordsAcute gastrointestinal injury Grade Intestinal barrier function Hyperpermeability Biomarker
In critically ill patients, the intestine is a vulnerable organ, and gastrointestinal (GI) dysfunction is common . Conversely, GI dysfunction can indicate a critical condition. It has been reported that almost 50% of patients in intensive care units (ICUs) have enterocyte damage at admission . Among critically ill patients, those with GI dysfunction have higher mortality rates than those without GI dysfunction. [3, 4]. It is therefore important to monitor the status of the GI tract in critically ill patients.
In 2012, the Working Group on Abdominal Problems of the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine (ESICM) defined acute gastrointestinal injury (AGI) as the malfunctioning of the GI tract in critically ill patients due to their acute illness, and recommended a four-grade classification for AGI severity . However, this definition mainly depends on the symptoms and signs of AGI, which are usually not sufficient to diagnose the underlying disease . Some biomarkers, for example, blood intestinal fatty acid–binding protein (i-FABP), d-lactate (d-la), and lipopolysaccharide (LPS), have been proposed as possible markers for intestinal barrier function and the detection of AGI . However, their clinical validity in the diagnosis and classification of AGI is still unclear. To our knowledge, no study has evaluated these biomarkers in critically ill patients with varying grades of AGI severity.
The purpose of this study was to determine whether biomarkers of GI barrier function could be used to indicate the severity and prognosis of AGI in critically ill patients. To this end, we assessed the association of various clinical parameters and biomarkers of GI barrier function with AGI severity and 28-day mortality in critically ill patients.
This prospective, observational study was conducted to assess the correlation of certain biomarkers in critically ill patients with different AGI grades. This study was performed in a 25-bed general ICU at the First Hospital of Jilin University (Changchun, China) from January 1, 2014 to June 30, 2014.
Patient selection and grouping
Patients were included if they had been hospitalized for at least 72 h before being diagnosed with AGI, according to the ESICM definition . Patients were excluded from the study if they were less than 18 years old; diagnosed with a malignancy, Crohn disease, ulcerative colitis, or short bowel syndrome; or hospitalized for less than 72 h before the AGI diagnosis was established.
Classification of AGI 
I (risk of GI dysfunction or failure)
Partial impairment of GI function, manifested as gastrointestinal symptoms related to a known cause and perceived to be transient. Examples: postoperative nausea and/or vomiting during the first few days after abdominal surgery, postoperative absence of bowel sounds, diminished bowel motility in the early phase of shock.
II (GI dysfunction)
The GI tract is unable to perform digestion and absorption adequately to satisfy the nutrient and fluid requirements of the body. There are no changes in the general condition of the patient due to GI problems. Examples: gastroparesis with high gastric residuals or reflux, paralysis of the lower GI tract, diarrhea, intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) 12–15 mmHg, visible blood in gastric content or stool. Feeding intolerance is present if at least 20 kcal/kg BW/day via the enteral route cannot be achieved within 72 h of a feeding attempt.
III (GI failure)
Loss of GI function. Restoration of GI function is not achieved despite interventions, and the general condition is not improving. Examples: persistent feeding intolerance despite treatment manifested as high gastric residuals, persistent GI paralysis, occurrence or worsening of bowel dilatation, IAP, 15–20 mmHg, low abdominal perfusion pressure (below 60 mmHg). Feeding intolerance is present and possibly associated with persistence or worsening of multiple organ dysfunction syndrome.
IV (GI failure with severe impact on distant organ function)
AGI has progressed to become directly and immediately life-threatening, with worsening of multiple organ dysfunction syndrome and shock. Examples: bowel ischemia with necrosis, GI bleeding leading to hemorrhagic shock, Ogilvie syndrome, abdominal compartment syndrome requiring decompression.
Data collection and clinical evaluation
Nutritional support and other treatments were provided according to local practice guidelines and the clinicians’ discretion. Blood samples to detect GI injury were collected on the day the patient was diagnosed with AGI. The samples were centrifuged, and the plasma thus obtained was frozen at −20 °C and sent to the laboratory within 1 week for analysis. Plasma i-FABP, d-la, and LPS levels were measured using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay kits (R&D Systems, Minneapolis, USA). We recruited 50 healthy volunteers and measured their plasma i-FABP, d-la, and LPS levels as a reference.
The following data were acquired from the patients: general characteristics, AGI grade, IAP (highest value obtained on bladder manometry in the first 3 days, with each measurement being performed at a set time of the day; measurements were performed at least 4 times a day, if the IAP exceeded 12 mm Hg, and mean values were used ), abdominal perfusion pressure (APP; difference between mean blood pressure and IAP, determined at the time of IAP measurement), Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation (APACHE) II score (in the first 24 h after ICU admission), Sepsis-related Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score (in the first 24 h after ICU admission), and 28-day mortality.
Categorical variables are presented as percentages, whereas continuous variables are presented as median and interquartile range (IQR). Variables involved in the four-grade AGI classification were compared using the Kruskal–Wallis test. Variables that were statistically significant (p < 0.05) were included in the multinomial multiple logistic regression analysis (method: enter) to identify associations between AGI grade and specific parameters. These variables were also included in the ordinal logistic regression analysis with AGI grades as the dependent variable to identify associations between ranked AGI grade and specific parameters. The associations between APACHE II score, SOFA score, AGI grade, IAP, APP, mortality, and LPS, d-la, and i-FABP levels were assessed using univariate analysis and multiple logistic regression analysis (method: enter).
A p-value of <0.05 was considered statistically significant. All tests were two-sided. Data were analyzed using commercially available software (PASW Statistics, version 17.0; SPSS, Chicago, IL, USA).
Baseline characteristics of the patients
Baseline characteristics of patients with AGI
n = 20
n = 46
n = 15
n = 9
n = 90
APACHE II score
Primary reason for intensive care
Association between AGI grade and patient characteristics
Laboratory data and other variables of patients with AGI
n = 20
n = 46
n = 15
n = 9
n = 90
Serum albumin (g/L)
Arterial lactate (mmol/L)
IAP (mm Hg)
APP (mm Hg)
Reference values of plasma i-FABP, LPS, and d-la in healthy individuals
Median (IQR, 25%–75%)
Multiple regression analysis of characteristics of the patients divided by AGI grade
OR (95% CI)
OR (95% CI)
OR (95% CI)
APACHE II score
IAP (mm Hg)
Ordinal logistic regression analysis of variables to predict AGI grade
OR (95% CI)
APACHE II score
IAP (mm Hg)
Association of AGI-related clinical variables with 28-day mortality
Regression analysis of variables to predict 28-day mortality
OR (95% CI)
OR (95% CI)
APACHE II score
IAP (mm Hg)
This study analyzed the association of certain markers of GI barrier function with AGI severity and mortality in critically ill patients. The results showed that the APACHE II score, IAP, and d-la level could reflect AGI severity, while only the SOFA score could independently predict the odds of death in AGI patients.
GI functions include the absorption of nutrients and water, barrier control to modulate absorption of intraluminal microbes (and their products), and endocrine and immune functions . However, we currently lack the tools or markers to comprehensively measure GI function, and thus, we cannot reliably evaluate this in the acute setting. Although the Recommendations of the ESICM Working Group on Abdominal Problems defined AGI and its grading, this definition is mainly based on the functions of digestion and absorption, and does not reflect other GI functions, such as acting as a barrier to harmful intraluminal substances .
Studies have indicated that the development of multiple organ dysfunction syndrome (MODS) is associated with a derangement in intestinal permeability that is detectable before the onset of the MODS . Meakins and Marchall postulated that the gut serves as the “motor” of MODS in injured or critically ill patients . Dysfunction of the GI barrier mainly manifests as intestinal epithelial hyperpermeability , which is common during critical illness. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that alteration of the GI barrier function plays an important role in the development MODS or GI injury, and should be taken into account during AGI grading.
The intestinal barrier is a protective component of the gut, shielding us from bacterial invasion or invasion by other microorganisms and their toxins. Intestinal permeability can be understood as a measurable feature of the intestinal barrier. Barrier function may be quantified by measuring the translocation of bacteria or bacterial products, such as LPS and d-la, from the gut into the portal vein or the systemic circulation or by assaying biomarkers of epithelial cell integrity such as i-FABP. Few studies have investigated the role of intestinal barrier function in AGI grading. We selected three biomarkers—LPS, d-la, and i-FABP—that reflect intestinal permeability to evaluate intestinal barrier function .
LPS is a glycolipid present in the outer membrane of gram-negative bacterial cell walls . The mucosal epithelium of the gastrointestinal tract serves as a major barrier to LPS, whereas the bacteria present in the intestinal lumen act as a major source of LPS [12, 13]. The process of LPS translocation from the gastrointestinal lumen to the systemic circulation is not fully understood, but it is thought that the GI tract is rendered permeable to LPS through changes in tight junctions . Hence, an increased serum level of LPS can reflect GI barrier dysfunction and increased intestinal permeability. This study found that the LPS level could distinguish between the different AGI grades on univariate analysis, but not on multiple regression analysis, possibly due to the influence of sepsis. Increased peripheral blood LPS levels have been detected in sepsis , and in the present study, a high proportion (about 40%) of the enrolled patients had sepsis, which could have interfered in the relationship between blood LPS levels and AGI grade.
Fatty acid–binding proteins are small cytosolic water-soluble proteins present in mature enterocytes. The levels of i-FABP have been reported to reflect the physiological turnover rate of enterocytes, with elevated levels indicating intestinal epithelial cell damage . Thus, the i-FABP level could be a useful marker for the early detection of significant intestinal injury . The i-FABP level has been found to correlate with the gut dysfunction score in acute pancreatitis . The present study found that i-FABP could distinguish between different AGI grades on univariate analysis, but not on multiple regression analysis, which included other factors that distinguished between AGI grades.
Normally, lactic acid exists in the form of l-lactate in mammalian cells, which almost exclusively produce this form of lactic acid. d-la is a fermentation product generated by many bacteria, including those present in the human GI tract . Low circulating levels of d-la are found in healthy individuals, but in the event of intestinal barrier function loss, these levels will rise as a consequence of increased translocation across the intestinal mucosa . An increase in plasma d-la has been associated with intestinal ischemia . Elevated serum d-la levels have been recorded in animals with high IAP, and a positive correlation was detected between blood d-la levels and IAP, and blood d-la levels may be an early indicator of increased IAP before intestinal ischemic changes occur . A relationship between plasma d-la and colonic permeability has been suggested . However, research on d-la and GI barrier function has not yet conclusively proven the value of this marker in evaluating AGI. Moreover, increases in plasma d-la levels have been detected in other conditions with non- impaired intestinal barrier, such as short-bowel syndrome, due to excessive GI fermentation of carbohydrates . However, these conditions also affect GI dysfunction. Hence, we consider that d-la is a good potential marker of GI injury that may influence the choices of AGI therapy in critically ill patients, and thus merits further study.
We also evaluated some clinical parameters associated AGI, such as AGI type (primary or secondary), GI surgery, serum albumin, sepsis, serum C-reactive protein, serum procalcitonin, arterial lactate, catecholamine support, SOFA score, APACHE II score, and IAP. We found APACHE II score and IAP could distinguish between the different AGI grades on multiple regression analysis. The finding that APACHE II scores could distinguish between different AGI grades proves the rationality of the AGI classification . Although the value of IAP in AGI evaluation is controversial, IAP is an important factor determining GI failure  and ESICM-defined AGI. Thus, it is reasonable that IAP could distinguish between different AGI grades.
The SOFA score, a valuable organ injury score that has been proven to predict prognosis in critical ill patients , is not based on AGI biomarkers. Thus, it may be worthwhile to determine the association of AGI biomarkers with SOFA scores in future studies. In this study, we found that blood d-la levels could distinguish AGI grades on both univariate analysis and multiple regression analysis, proving that the plasma d-la level can be a better biomarker of AGI grade than i-FABP and LPS levels. Thus, plasma d-la levels may be helpful to distinguish the severity of AGI and to monitor the progression of AGI. The usefulness of this biomarker in guiding treatment decisions and assessing therapeutic outcomes should be assessed in future studies.
Our study has certain limitations. First, the sample size was relatively small, and it is difficult to exclude the effects of confounding factors due to the diverse baseline characteristics of critically ill patients. Second, there was no control group of critically ill patients with normal GI function. Third, i-FABP, LPS, and d-la only partially reflect intestinal barrier function, and tight junction molecules such as claudins and zonula occludens , were not detected in this study. Fourth, methods of nutritional support were not included in the analysis.
AGI patients exhibit injury to the gastrointestinal barrier, and d-la could serve as a better marker of AGI grade than i-FABP or LPS. In addition to d-la, APACHE II score and IAP were associated with AGI grade in this study. The SOFA score was confirmed to be useful in predicting the prognosis of critically ill patients with AGI.
Acute gastrointestinal injury
Acute physiology and chronic health evaluation
Abdominal perfusion pressure
European Society of Intensive Care Medicine
Intensive care unit
Intestinal fatty acid–binding protein
Multiple organ dysfunction syndrome
Sepsis-related organ failure assessment
This study was supported by a grant from the National Health and Family Planning Commission of the People’s Republic of China (Special Fund for Health Scientific Research in the Public Interest), Program no. 201202011.
Availability of data and materials
The raw data will not be made available to readers because consent for the publication of raw data was not obtained, and the raw dataset could in theory pose a threat to patient confidentiality. Due to the clinical nature of the research, the small sample size, and the specific treatment site, the patients’ identities can be easily inferred from the raw data.
HL and DZ conducted the analysis and produced the first draft of the manuscript. YC and HF were responsible for the statistics and charts. DZ and YW were responsible for checking the manuscript. All authors critically revised the manuscript. All authors have seen and approved the final draft of the manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Consent for publication
Ethics approval and consent to participate
Approval for this study was obtained from the ethics committee of the First Hospital of Jilin University, and written informed consent was acquired from patients or their legal representatives.
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