Procalcitonin assay in systemic inflammation, infection, and sepsis: clinical utility and limitations

Crit Care Med. 2008 Mar;36(3):941-52. doi: 10.1097/CCM.0B013E318165BABB.


Objective: The use of procalcitonin (ProCT) as a marker of several clinical conditions, in particular, systemic inflammation, infection, and sepsis, will be clarified, and its current limitations will be delineated. In particular, the need for a more sensitive assay will be emphasized. For these purposes, the medical literature comprising clinical studies pertaining to the measurement of serum ProCT in various clinical settings was examined.

Data source and selection: A PubMed search (1965 through November 2007) was conducted, including manual cross-referencing. Pertinent complete publications were obtained using the MeSH terms procalcitonin, C-reactive protein, sepsis, and biological markers. Textbook chapters were also read and extracted.

Data extraction and synthesis: Available clinical and other patient data from these sources were reviewed, including any data relating to precipitating factors, clinical findings, associated illnesses, and patient outcome. Published data concerning sensitivity, specificity, and reproducibility of ProCT assays were reviewed.

Conclusions: Based on available data, the measurement of serum ProCT has definite utility as a marker of severe systemic inflammation, infection, and sepsis. However, publications concerning its diagnostic and prognostic utility are contradictory. In addition, patient characteristics and clinical settings vary markedly, and the data have been difficult to interpret and often extrapolated inappropriately to clinical usage. Furthermore, attempts at meta-analyses are greatly compromised by the divergent circumstances of reported studies and by the sparsity and different timing of the ProCT assays. Although a high ProCT commonly occurs in infection, it is also elevated in some noninfectious conditions. Thus, the test is not a specific indicator of either infection or sepsis. Moreover, in any individual patient, the precipitating cause of an illness, the clinical milieu, and complicating conditions may render tenuous any reliable estimations of severity or prognosis. It also is apparent that even a febrile septic patient with documented bacteremia may not necessarily have a serum ProCT that is elevated above the limit of functional sensitivity of the assay. In this regard, the most commonly applied assay (i.e., LUMItest) is insufficiently sensitive to detect potentially important mild elevations or trends. Clinical studies with a more sensitive ProCT assay that is capable of rapid and practicable day-to-day monitoring are needed and shortly may be available. In addition, investigations showing that ProCT and its related peptides may have mediator relevance point to the need for evaluating therapeutic countermeasures and studying the pathophysiologic effect of hyperprocalcitonemia in serious infection and sepsis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Calcitonin / blood*
  • Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide
  • Humans
  • Infections / blood*
  • Inflammation / blood*
  • Protein Precursors / blood*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Sepsis / blood*


  • CALCA protein, human
  • Protein Precursors
  • Calcitonin
  • Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide