Sepsis and multiple organ failure remain leading causes of death in intensive care patients. Recent advances in our understanding of the pathophysiology of these syndromes include a likely prominent role for mitochondria. Patient studies have shown that the degree of mitochondrial dysfunction is related to the eventual outcome. Associated mechanisms include damage to mitochondria or inhibition of the electron transport chain enzymes by nitric oxide and other reactive oxygen species (the effects of which are amplified by co-existing tissue hypoxia), hormonal influences that decrease mitochondrial activity, and downregulation of mitochondrial protein expression. Notably, despite these findings, there is minimal cell death seen in most affected organs, and these organs generally regain reasonably normal function should the patient survive. It is thus plausible that multiple organ failure following sepsis may actually represent an adaptive state whereby the organs temporarily shut down their normal metabolic functions in order to protect themselves from an overwhelming and prolonged insult. A decrease in energy supply due to mitochondrial inhibition or injury may trigger this hibernation/estivation-like state.
Likewise, organ recovery may depend on restoration of normal mitochondrial respiration. Data from animal studies show histological recovery of mitochondria after a septic insult that precedes clinical improvement. Stimulation of mitochondrial biogenesis could offer a new therapeutic approach for patients in multi-organ failure.
This review will cover basic aspects of mitochondrial function, mechanisms of mitochondrial dysfunction in sepsis, and approaches to prevent, mitigate or speed recovery from mitochondrial injury.