Introduction and Objectives The clinical diagnosis of ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) remains notoriously difficult, as several non-infective conditions mimic VAP. Microbiological confirmation of the diagnosis using conventional cultures typically takes 48–72 h. Identification of molecules measurable within a short time frame and closely associated with microbiologically confirmed VAP is therefore highly desirable. VAP is associated with significant influx of activated neutrophils into the alveolar space. We postulated that extracellular neutrophil proteases in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) may reliably identify VAP in suspected cases.
Methods Fifty-four intubated and mechanically ventilated patients in the intensive care unit developed clinically suspected VAP and were recruited. Bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) was performed using a standardised protocol. An aliquot of BALF was sent to the diagnostic microbiology laboratory for quantitative culture, with confirmation of VAP defined as growth of a pathogen(s) at >104 colony forming units/ml. Remaining BALF was centrifuged. The following neutrophil-specific proteases were assayed in cell-free BALF supernatant—matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-8 and MMP-9 by Luminex assay, and human neutrophil elastase (HNE) by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Urea was simultaneously measured in serum and BALF, and used to correct for the dilution of epithelial lining induced by BAL. Receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves were constructed and optimal specificity and sensitivity for each marker calculated.
Results Eleven patients (20%) had confirmed VAP. For HNE (cut off 670ng/ml) the ROC area under curve (AUC) was 0.87 (p<0.0001), sensitivity 93%, specificity 79%. For MMP-8 (13 ng/ml), ROC AUC was 0.81 (p<0.005), sensitivity 91%, specificity 63%. For MMP-9 (22 ng/ml), ROC AUC was 0.79 (p<0.005), sensitivity 82%, specificity 63%.
Conclusions Neutrophil proteases are strongly associated with confirmed infection in cases of suspected VAP. The values for HNE, in particular, compare extremely favourably with any previously published equivalent values. These data suggest that neutrophil protease concentrations in BALF deserve further attention as potentially diagnostic markers for VAP. They further suggest that neutrophil proteases, inappropriately released into the extracellular space, may contribute to the pathophysiology of VAP.