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Update on biomarkers of acute kidney injury: moving closer to clinical impact?

Acute kidney injury (AKI) represents a common disorder in hospitalized patients, and its incidence is rising at an alarming rate. Despite significant improvements in critical care and renal replacement therapies (RRT), the outcome of critically ill patients with AKI necessitating RRT remains unacceptably dismal. In current clinical practice, the diagnosis and severity classification of AKI is based on a rise in serum creatinine levels, which may occur 2-3 days after the initiating renal insult and delay potentially effective therapies that are limited to the early stage. The emergence of numerous renal tubular damage-specific biomarkers offers an opportunity to diagnose AKI at an early timepoint, to facilitate differential diagnosis of structural and functional AKI, and to predict the outcome of established AKI. The purposes of this review are to summarize and to discuss the performance of these novel AKI biomarkers in various clinical settings. The most promising AKI biomarkers include plasma and urinary neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin (NGAL), urinary interleukin (IL)-18, urinary liver-type fatty acid binding protein (L-FABP), urinary cystatin C, and urinary kidney injury molecule (KIM)-1. However, enthusiasm about their usefulness in the emergency department seems unwarranted at present. There is little doubt that urinary biomarkers of nephron damage may enable prospective diagnostic and prognostic stratification in the emergency department. However, comparison of the areas under the receiver-operating characteristic curves of these biomarkers with clinical and/or routine biochemical outcome parameters reveals that none of these biomarkers has a clear advantage beyond the traditional approach in clinical decision making in patients with AKI. The performance of various biomarkers for predicting AKI in patients with sepsis or with acute-on-chronic kidney disease is poor. The inability of biomarkers to improve classification of 'unclassifiable' (structural or functional) AKI, in which accurate differential diagnosis of pre-renal versus intrinsic renal AKI has the most value, illustrates another problem. Future research is necessary to clarify whether serial measurements of a specific biomarker or the use of a panel of biomarkers may be more useful in critically ill patients at risk of AKI. Whether or not the use of AKI biomarkers revolutionizes critical care medicine by early diagnosis of severe AKI and individualizes the management of AKI patients remains to be shown. Currently, the place of biomarkers in this decision-making process is still uncertain. Indiscriminate use of various biomarkers may distract clinicians from adequate clinical evaluation, may result in worse instead of better patient outcomes, and may waste money. Future large randomized studies are necessary to demonstrate the association between biomarker levels and clinical outcomes, such as dialysis, clinical events, or death. It needs to be shown whether assignment to earlier treatment for AKI on the basis of generally accepted biomarker cut-off levels results in a reduction in mortality and an improvement in recovery of renal function.

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