Low zinc and selenium concentrations in sepsis are associated with oxidative damage and inflammation

Br J Anaesth. 2015 Jun;114(6):990-9. doi: 10.1093/bja/aev073. Epub 2015 Mar 31.


Background: Oxidative stress with dysregulated inflammation are hallmarks of sepsis. Zinc and selenium have important antioxidant functions, such that they could be important in patients with sepsis. We used an in vitro approach to assess the effect of zinc and selenium on oxidative stress, mitochondrial function, and inflammatory responses in conditions mimicking sepsis and related the findings to plasma concentrations and biomarkers in patients with and without sepsis.

Methods: Human endothelial cells were exposed to a range of zinc and selenium concentrations in conditions mimicking sepsis. Zinc, selenium, and a series of biomarkers of oxidative stress and inflammation were measured in plasma from critically ill patients with and without sepsis.

Results: Culturing cells with different concentrations of zinc caused altered zinc transporter protein expression and cellular zinc content, and selenium affected glutathione peroxidase 3 activity. Although zinc or selenium at physiological concentrations had no effect on interleukin-6 release in vitro, higher concentrations of the trace elements were associated with improved mitochondrial function. Plasma zinc and selenium concentrations were low in patients [zinc: median (range) 4.6 (2.1-6.5) μM in control patients without sepsis and 3.1 (1.5-5.4) μM in patients with sepsis, P=0.002; and selenium: 0.78 (0.19-1.32) μM in control patients and 0.42 (0.22-0.91) μM in sepsis patients, P=0.0009]. Plasma concentrations of interleukin-6, other biomarkers of inflammation, and markers of oxidative damage to proteins and lipids were elevated, particularly in patients with sepsis, and were inversely related to plasma zinc and selenium concentrations.

Conclusions: Zinc and selenium concentrations were reduced in critically ill patients, with increased oxidative stress and inflammatory biomarkers, particularly in patients with sepsis. Oxidative stress as a result of suboptimal selenium and zinc concentrations might contribute to damage of key proteins.

Clinical trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov: registration number NCT01328509.

Keywords: critical illness; mitochondria, oxidative damage; selenium; sepsis; zinc.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antioxidants / metabolism*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Critical Illness
  • Endothelial Cells / drug effects
  • Female
  • Glutathione Peroxidase / metabolism
  • Human Umbilical Vein Endothelial Cells / drug effects
  • Human Umbilical Vein Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / blood
  • Inflammation / metabolism*
  • Inflammation / pathology
  • Interleukin-6 / metabolism
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Oxidative Stress*
  • Selenium / blood
  • Selenium / deficiency*
  • Selenium / metabolism
  • Sepsis / blood
  • Sepsis / metabolism*
  • Sepsis / pathology
  • Young Adult
  • Zinc / blood
  • Zinc / deficiency*
  • Zinc / metabolism


  • Antioxidants
  • Interleukin-6
  • Glutathione Peroxidase
  • Selenium
  • Zinc

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT01328509