Influence of N-acetylcysteine on indirect indicators of tissue oxygenation in septic shock patients: results from a prospective, randomized, double-blind study

C D Spies, K Reinhart, I Witt, A Meier-Hellmann, L Hannemann, D L Bredle, W Schaffartzik
Critical Care Medicine 1994, 22 (11): 1738-46

OBJECTIVES: Deactivation of endothelium-derived relaxing factor due to an increased oxygen radical load during sepsis may contribute to an impairment in microcirculatory blood flow. We investigated whether treatment with the sulfhydryl donor and oxygen radical scavenger, N-acetylcysteine, would improve whole-body oxygen consumption (VO2), gastric intramucosal pH, and veno-arterial CO2 gradient (veno-arterial PCO2) during septic shock.

DESIGN: Prospective, randomized, double-blind study conducted over 2 yrs.

SETTING: Septic shock patients admitted to the intensive care unit.

PATIENTS: Fifty-eight patients requiring hemodynamic monitoring (radial and pulmonary artery catheters) due to septic shock, were included in this study. All patients were examined within 72 hrs after the onset of sepsis. They were optimally resuscitated by conventional means with volume and inotropic agents, and exhibited stable clinical conditions (hemodynamic values, body temperature, hemoglobin, FIO2).

INTERVENTIONS: A gastric tonometer was inserted to measure the gastric intramucosal pH. Subjects randomly received either 150 mg/kg of intravenous N-acetylcysteine or placebo over a 15-min period, then a continuous infusion of 12.5 mg/hr of N-acetylcysteine or placebo over approximately 90 mins.

MEASUREMENTS: Infusion measurements were begun 60 mins after the beginning of infusion and lasted approximately 30 mins. The infusion was then discontinued and 2 hrs later the final measurements were taken.

MAIN RESULTS: Basic patient characteristics (age, sex, Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation [APACHE] II scores, Multiple Organ Failure scores) did not differ significantly, nor did pre- and 2-hr postinfusion measurements differ between any of the groups. Thirteen (45%) patients responded (i.e., showed an increase in VO2 > 10%, reaching a mean of 19%) to the N-acetylcysteine infusion. The N-acetylcysteine responders also showed an increase in gastric intramucosal pH, a decrease in veno-arterial PCO2, an increase in oxygen delivery, cardiac index, stroke index, and left ventricular stroke work index, as well as a significant decrease in systemic vascular resistance in comparison to baseline. The N-acetylcysteine nonresponders, as well as the patients in the placebo group, did not show any significant changes in any of these variables. The N-acetylcysteine responders had a higher survival rate (69%) than the non-responders (19%) and were studied earlier after onset of sepsis (37 hrs) than the nonresponders (61 hrs). The only significant difference between the entire N-acetylcysteine group (which included responders plus nonresponders) and the placebo group was an increased VO2 in the entire N-acetylcysteine group during infusion measurements.

CONCLUSIONS: N-acetylcysteine provided a transient improvement in tissue oxygenation in about half of the septic shock patients, as indicated by an increase in VO2 and gastric intramucosal pH and a decrease in veno-arterial PCO2. The higher survival rate in the N-acetylcysteine responders and the fact that half of the patients receiving N-acetylcysteine did not respond, suggests that, in some patients, sepsis irreversibly damages the microvasculature to the extent that N-acetylcysteine has no effect. If analyzed by intention to treat, the N-acetylcysteine did not produce effects that were significantly different from the placebo. Whether the N-acetylcysteine challenge was merely diagnostic or whether N-acetylcysteine can be effective in the treatment of sepsis deserves further investigation.

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