The endothelial glycocalyx is a vital regulator of vascular permeability. Damage to this delicate layer can result in increased protein and water transit. The clinical importance of albuminuria as a predictor of kidney disease progression and vascular disease has driven research in this area. This review outlines how research to date has attempted to measure the contribution of the endothelial glycocalyx to vessel wall permeability. We discuss the evidence for the role of the endothelial glycocalyx in regulating permeability in discrete areas of the vasculature and highlight the inherent limitations of the data that have been produced to date. In particular, this review emphasizes the difficulties in interpreting urinary albumin levels in early disease models. In addition, the research that supports the view that glycocalyx damage is a key pathologic step in a diverse array of clinical conditions, including diabetic complications, sepsis, preeclampsia, and atherosclerosis, is summarized. Finally, novel methods are discussed, including an ex vivo glomerular permeability assay that enhances the understanding of permeability changes in disease.
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