What is the pathogenesis of necrotizing enterocolitis s (NEC)?

Updated: Dec 27, 2017
  • Author: Shelley C Springer, JD, MD, MSc, MBA, FAAP; Chief Editor: Muhammad Aslam, MD  more...
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Although the exact etiology of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) remains unknown, research suggests that it is multifactorial; ischemia and/or reperfusion injury, exacerbated by activation of proinflammatory intracellular cascades, may play a significant role. Cases that cluster in epidemics suggest an infectious etiology. Gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, fungi, and viruses have all been isolated from affected infants; however, many infants have negative culture findings.

Furthermore, the same organisms isolated in stool cultures from affected babies have also been isolated from healthy babies. Extensive experimental work in animal models suggests that translocation of intestinal flora across an intestinal mucosal barrier rendered vulnerable by the interplay of intestinal ischemia, immunologic immaturity, and immunological dysfunction may play a role in the etiology of the disease, spreading it and triggering systemic involvement. Such a mechanism could account for the apparent protection breast-fed infants have against fulminant NEC.

Animal model research studies have shed light on the pathogenesis of this disease. Regardless of the triggering mechanisms, the resultant outcome is significant inflammation of the intestinal tissues, the release of inflammatory mediators (eg, leukotrienes, tumor necrosis factor [TNF], platelet-activating factor [PAF]) and intraluminal bile acids, and downregulation of cellular growth factors, all of which lead to variable degrees of intestinal damage.

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