What is the role of intestinal ischemia in the pathogenesis of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)?

Updated: Dec 27, 2017
  • Author: Shelley C Springer, JD, MD, MSc, MBA, FAAP; Chief Editor: Muhammad Aslam, MD  more...
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Animal models of induced intestinal ischemia have identified its significant role in the development of NEC. Pathologically, ischemia induces a local inflammatory response that results in activation of a proinflammatory cascade with mediators such as PAF, TNF-a, complement, prostaglandins, and leukotrienes such as C4 and interleukin 18 (IL-18). This potential role of perhaps even antenatal inflammation in the eventual clinical occurrence of NEC is further supported by a recent systematic review of the evidence showing a strong correlation between antenatal clinical and/or histologic chorioamnionitis and subsequent NEC. [11]

Alterations in hepatobiliary cell junction integrity result in leakage of these proinflammatory substances and bile acids into the intestinal lumen, increasing intestinal injury. Cellular protective mechanisms such as epidermal growth factor (EGF), transforming growth factor β1 (TGF-β1), and erythropoietin are down-regulated, further compromising the infant's ability to mount a protective response. Subsequent norepinephrine release and vasoconstriction result in splanchnic ischemia, followed by reperfusion injury.

Intestinal necrosis results in breach of the mucosal barrier, allowing for bacterial translocation and migration of bacterial endotoxin into the damaged tissue. The endotoxin then interacts synergistically with PAF and a multitude of other proinflammatory molecules to amplify the inflammatory response.

Activated leukocytes and intestinal epithelial xanthine oxidase may then produce reactive oxygen species, leading to further tissue injury and cell death. Experimental administration of PAF inhibitors in animal models has not been shown to mitigate intestinal mucosal injury. Many other modulators of the inflammatory response are being studied both in vivo in animal models and in vitro in an attempt to mitigate or prevent the morbidity and mortality caused by fulminant necrotizing enterocolitis.

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