Sometimes there's this moment you read about medical research in the news... sometimes you read lots of rubbish on medical issues in the news... but sometimes you stop and read, and you don't know what to think. This happened to quite some of us a couple of days ago when reading the headlines in the British Independent:
Well, it's not very often you read the term sepsis in the news but the word 'cure' causes estonishment or rather misbelief. Further reading certainly catches your attention: 'A doctor in the US state of Virginia claims to have found his own cure for sepsis' and 'Since then, he has used it to treat 150 sepsis patients. Just one has died of the condition, claims Dr Marik'. And it's not an article from some remote pseude magazine... no, it has been published in 'Chest'! And all this is not due to some novel molecule... it's all about Vitamin C!
Thanks to #FOAMed quite some smart brains have looked into this topic already...
So here's the most important facts you need to know - in short:
What's the Story?
Paul Marik et al. have published a
single-centre retrospective cohort study
in which they have treated
47 consecutive septic patients over a periode of 7 months with intravenous vitamin C (1.5g 6-hourly), hydrocortisone (50mg 6-hourly) and thiamine (200mg 12-hourly)
and then compared these patients to
47 septic patients treated in their unit during the preceding 7 months
Propensity score matching
An overall hospital mortality of 40.4% in the control group compared to 8.5% in the intervention group
An absolute risk reduction of 31.9% and also according to the authors none of the patients in the intervention arm died of sepsis!
What Does This Mean?
These results are quite amazing on the first look, but there's more behind these numbers. Paul Marik has first of all published an observational study: unblinded, uncontrolled, retrospective and low in patient numbers.
There are several limitations that go hand in hand with studies as such and unblinded before-and-after studies have a lot. A major challenge in conducting observational studies is to draw inferences that are acceptably free from influences by overt biases, as well as to assess the influence of potential hidden biases. One of the biggest drawbacks in this current study is the timely/ seasonal difference when patients have been selected.
If you are interested to have a closer look on this you should read Dan's blog entry on stemlynsblog.org HERE.
Studies like this one are an important part of science, but observational studies are observational... not proof!
Why Vitamin C in Sepsis?
There is a scientific rationale behind all of this. As mentioned by Paul in his paper vitamin C levels do fall low in sepsis and the most efficient way to administer it is intravenously. The same is true for thiamin which also goes low in up to one third of all septic patients.
There are two rather small randomised control trials suggesting that vitamin C is safe in septic patients and might actually be of some degree of benefit for the patient.
- Neutralizes free radicals and has therefore antioxydative properties
- Is an important conenzyme for the procollagen-proline dioxygenase, which itself is necessary for the biosynthesis of stable collagen in our body. Vitamin C deficiency leeds to unstable collagen and therefore scurvy
- Is an important cofactor in the synthesis of steroids like cortisol and catecholamines like dopamine and noradrenalin as well
- and it has many more functions that go beyond the scope of this blog entry!
However, the importance of vitamin C in the treatment and prevention of diseases like e.g. the common cold or influenza remains highly contrversial. The observation of some moderate positive influence on the course of disease in some studies could not be reproduced in other trials.
Under normal circumstances vitamin C deficiency is practically non-existent in Europe, but becomes a fact during sepsis. If this is clinically relevant in septic patients seems plausible but remains to be elucidated.
Shailja Chambial, Shailendra Dwivedi, Kamla Kant Shukla, Placheril J. John, and Praveen Sharma. Vitamin C in Disease Prevention and Cure: An Overview. Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry. Oktober 2013; 28(4): S. 314–328
H. Hemilä, E. Chalker: Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2013
R. M. Douglas, E. B. Chalker, B. Treacy: Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. In: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2000; 2:CD000980.
Another great read into the details: Josh Farkas from pulmcrit
More Ifs and Buts
Sepsis is not a disease, its a clinical syndrome that has physiologic, biologic and biochemical abnormalities caused by a dysregulated inflammatory response to infection. The fact that different definitions have evolved since the early 1990s shows that we still struggle to definde sepsis as a single entity. This is one reason why a single therapy might not always be the best for each diesease causing sepsis.
Paul Marik’s publication is interesting and deserves respect. It’s an observational study but provides no evidence by far. Vitamin C might be an interesting novel approach to sepsis but the term ‘cure’ used in the media is inappropriate and misleading.
The term ‘cure for sepsis’ also implicates that vitamin C is a cure for all infections causing sepsis and is therefore problematic.
The Current Bottom Line
- The study published by Marik et al. is purely observational and provides no proof at all.
- Just because vitamine C might be safe in Sepsis does not mean this has to be given. At this stage no recommendation can be made for the use of vitamin C in sepsis.
- Studies like these are an part of research itself - However, the use of the term 'cure' seem problematic and inappropriate in this context.
Marik et. al, J Chest 2017
Sepsis certainly keeps us going... either when treating patients on ICU or when it comes to the discussion on what actually sepsis is and how to define it. So far the SIRS (Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome) criteria have provided some degree of handle to cope with this syndrome but of course we weren't all quite happy with this. In fact every person with any sort of infectious disease will respond with 2 or more SIRS criteria... but doesn't necessarily have to be septic. As a matter of fact a SIRS is nothing else but a physiologic response to any sort of inflammation.
The New Approach to Sepsis - The SOFA
The new international consensus definitions for sepsis and septic shock try to focus on the fact that sepsis itself defines a life-threatening organ dysfunction caused by a dysregulated host response to infection. By saying this the aim is to provide a definition that allows early detection of septic patients and allow prompt and appropriate response. As even a modest degree of organ dysfunction is associated with an increased in-hospital mortality the SOFA score (Sequential or 'Sepsis-related' Organ Failure Assessment) was found to be the best scoring system for this purpose. It's well known, simple to use and has a well-validated relationship to mortality risk.
Sepsis (related organ dysfunction) is now defined by a SOFA score increase of 2 points or more
The Quick Approach to Sepsis - The BAT
In the out-of-hospital setting, on the general wards or in the emergency department the task force recommends an altered bed side clinical score called the quickSOFA - or alternatively 'the BAT' score:
The New Approach to Septic Shock -Vasopressors and Lactate
Septic shock is now defined as a subset of sepsis in which underlying circulatory, cellular, and metabolic abnormalities are associated with a greater risk of death than sepsis alone. Keeping a long story short:
Septic Shock is now:
- The need for vasopressors to maintain a mean arterial pressure of at least 65mmHg
- a serum lactate level of more than 2mmol/L... after adequate fluid resuscitation
The Bottom Line:
The way it looks like we are left with Sepsis and Septic Shock
Severe Sepsis has vanished and the question remains, whether these new definitions will actually benefit the ones that need it most... our septic patients!
Singer M et al. JAMA. 2016;315(8):801-810.
Seymour CW et al. JAMA. 2016;315(8):762-774.
Shankar-Hari M et al. JAMA. 2016;315(8):775-787.
The discussion on the so-called lactic acidosis and its causes have become increasingly attractive over the last couple of years as several biochemical explanations are challenged. A significant confusion persists on the various relationships between lactate, lactic acid and metabolic acidosis.
Most clinicians continue to refer to the traditional understanding of impaired tissue oxygenation causing increased lactate production, impaired lactate clearance and therefore resultant metabolic acidosis. Just recently we had a discussion on our ward round on this topic when a team member presented the most recent article of UpToDate online on the causes of lactic acidosis. The authors state that 'Lactic acidosis is the most common cause of metabolic acidosis in hospitalised patients' and that 'Lactic acidosis occurs when lactate production exceeds lactate clearance. The increase in lactate production is usually caused by impaired tissue oxygenation...'... finally suggesting that lactate is no good!
These statements support the classical understanding that:
- Hyperlactatemia is caused by tissue hypoxemia, and
- This in turn then leads to a metabolic acidosis called lactic acidosis
This biochemical understanding has persisted for decades, but there are some good reasons to vigorously challenge this traditional aspect on the 'bad' lactate. Lactate turns out to be by far more complex in its characteristics and functions, so I decided to try and make a short but comprehensive overview of this molecule.
What is lactate?
Lactate is a small organic molecule with the chemical formula CH3CH(OH)CO2H and structurally looks like on the image to the left. It is produced in the cytoplasm of human cells mainly by anaerobic glycolysis by the conversion of pyruvate to lactate by LDH. This chemical reaction results typically in a blood lactate to pyruvate ratio of about 10:1. And while lactate is produced, NAD+ also is incurred, and this actually can accept protons itself, so does not result in acidosis itself.
Lactate arises from the production of energy by consuming glycogen and glucose.