Cytokines as new biomarkers of skin wound vitality

Int J Legal Med. 2021 Nov;135(6):2537-2545. doi: 10.1007/s00414-021-02659-z. Epub 2021 Jul 27.


Background: The diagnosis of skin wound vitality is currently based on standard histology, but histological findings lack sensitivity in case of a short survival time. New reliable biomarkers of vitality are therefore strongly needed. We assessed the ability of 10 candidate cytokines (IFN-γ, IL-1β, IL-2, IL-4, IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, IL-12p70, IL-13, TNF-α) to discriminate between vital and early post-mortem wounds.

Methods: Twenty-four cadavers with a recent open skin wound (< 3 h) were included (20 men, 4 women, mean age = 51.0 ± 24.3 years). An early post-mortem wound was performed in an uninjured skin area, and both wounds were sampled at the autopsy (post-mortem interval (PMI) = 66.3 ± 28.3 h). Needle-puncture sites related to resuscitation cares were included as very early post-mortem wounds (n = 6). In addition to standard histology, cytokines levels were simultaneously measured in each sample using a multiplex sandwich immunoassay, then normalized on healthy skin levels. A quantitative evaluation of IL-8-positive cells in ante- and post-mortem wound samples was also performed.

Results: In the training set of samples (n = 72), cytokine levels were significantly higher in vital wounds (mean age = 47 ± 53 min) than in post-mortem wounds (mean PMI = 6.9 ± 9.0 h) (p < 0.2), except for two cytokines (IFN-γ and IL-2). IL-8 was the best discriminatory cytokine (Se = 54%, Sp = 100%, AUC = 0.79), while a multivariate model combining IL-4 and IL12p70 was a bit more discriminant (Se = 55%, Sp = 100%, AUC = 0.84). In the validation set (n = 72), the discriminatory power of the cytokines and the predictive model was slightly lower, with IL-8 remaining the best cytokine (Se = 46%, Sp = 96%, AUC = 0.75). The predictive model remained highly specific (Sp = 100%). Both the cytokines and the predictive model allowed the iatrogenic injuries to be correctly classified as post-mortem wounds. Standard histology and immunohistochemistry showed 21% sensitivity and a specificity of 79% and 100%, respectively. Only two iatrogenic wounds could be properly categorized histologically.

Conclusion: This study suggests that cytokines could be useful biomarkers of skin wound vitality and that the immunoassay method could be more sensitive than immunohistochemistry to identify wounds with a short survival time. Further research is underway to confirm these preliminary data.

Keywords: Cytokines; Forensic pathology; Immunoassay; Immunohistochemistry; Vitality; Wound.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Autopsy
  • Biomarkers
  • Cytokines*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunoassay
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Skin / injuries*
  • Wound Healing*


  • Biomarkers
  • Cytokines