Sepsis: multiple abnormalities, heterogeneous responses, and evolving understanding

Physiol Rev. 2013 Jul;93(3):1247-88. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00037.2012.


Sepsis represents the host's systemic inflammatory response to a severe infection. It causes substantial human morbidity resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Despite decades of intense research, the basic mechanisms still remain elusive. In either experimental animal models of sepsis or human patients, there are substantial physiological changes, many of which may result in subsequent organ injury. Variations in age, gender, and medical comorbidities including diabetes and renal failure create additional complexity that influence the outcomes in septic patients. Specific system-based alterations, such as the coagulopathy observed in sepsis, offer both potential insight and possible therapeutic targets. Intracellular stress induces changes in the endoplasmic reticulum yielding misfolded proteins that contribute to the underlying pathophysiological changes. With these multiple changes it is difficult to precisely classify an individual's response in sepsis as proinflammatory or immunosuppressed. This heterogeneity also may explain why most therapeutic interventions have not improved survival. Given the complexity of sepsis, biomarkers and mathematical models offer potential guidance once they have been carefully validated. This review discusses each of these important factors to provide a framework for understanding the complex and current challenges of managing the septic patient. Clinical trial failures and the therapeutic interventions that have proven successful are also discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Sepsis / immunology
  • Sepsis / mortality
  • Sepsis / physiopathology*
  • Sex Factors
  • Stress, Physiological