DIC can occur acutely but also on a slower, chronic basis, depending on the underlying problem. It is common in the critically ill, and may participate in the development of multiple organ failure, which may lead to death.
In DIC, the processes of coagulation and fibrinolysis lose control, and the result is widespread clotting with resultant bleeding. Regardless of the triggering event of DIC, once initiated, the pathophysiology of DIC is similar in all conditions. One critical mediator of DIC is the release of a transmembrane glycoprotein called tissue factor (TF). TF is present on the surface of many cell types (including endothelial cells, macrophages, and monocytes) and is not normally in contact with the general circulation, but is exposed to the circulation after vascular damage. For example, TF is released in response to exposure to cytokines (particularly interleukin 1), tumor necrosis factor, and endotoxin. This plays a major role in the development of DIC in septic conditions. TF is also abundant in tissues of the lungs, brain, and placenta. This helps to explain why DIC readily develops in patients with extensive trauma. Upon activation, TF binds with coagulation factors that then trigger both the intrinsic and the extrinsic pathways of coagulation.
The release of endotoxin is the mechanism by which Gram-negative sepsis provokes DIC. In acute promyelocytic leukemia, treatment causes the destruction of leukemic granulocyte precursors, resulting in the release of large amounts of proteolytic enzymes from their storage granules, causing microvascular damage. Other malignancies may enhance the expression of various oncogenes that result in the release of TF and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1), which prevents fibrinolysis.
Excess circulating thrombin results from the excess activation of the coagulation cascade. The excess thrombin cleaves fibrinogen, which ultimately leaves behind multiple fibrin clots in the circulation. These excess clots trap platelets to become larger clots, which leads to microvascular and macrovascular thrombosis. This lodging of clots in the microcirculation, in the large vessels, and in the organs is what leads to the ischemia, impaired organ perfusion, and end-organ damage that occurs with DIC.
Coagulation inhibitors are also consumed in this process. Decreased inhibitor levels will permit more clotting so that a feedback system develops in which increased clotting leads to more clotting. At the same time, thrombocytopenia occurs because of the entrapment and consumption of platelets. Clotting factors are consumed in the development of multiple clots, which contributes to the bleeding seen with DIC.
Simultaneously, excess circulating thrombin assists in the conversion of plasminogen to plasmin, resulting in fibrinolysis. The breakdown of clots results in excess amounts of FDPs, which have powerful anticoagulant properties, contributing to hemorrhage. The excess plasmin also activates the complement and kinin systems. Activation of these systems leads to many of the clinical symptoms that patients experiencing DIC exhibit, such as shock, hypotension, and increased vascular permeability. The acute form of DIC is considered an extreme expression of the intravascular coagulation process with a complete breakdown of the normal homeostatic boundaries. DIC is associated with a poor prognosis and a high mortality rate.
Definitive diagnosis depends on the result of:
DIC results in lower fibrinogen levels (as it has all been converted to fibrin), and this can be tested for in the hospital lab. A more specific test is for "fibrin split products" (FSPs) or "fibrin degradation products" (FDPs) which are produced when fibrin undergoes degradation when blood clots are dissolved by fibrinolysis.
In some situations, infusion with antithrombin may be necessary. A new development is drotrecogin alfa (Xigris), a recombinant activated protein C product. Activated Protein C (APC) deactivates clotting factors V and VIII, and the presumed mechanism of action of drotrecogin is the cessation of the intravascular coagulation. Due to its high cost and its severe adverse effects, it is only used strictly on indication in intensive care patients with severe sepsis. The large, multicenter ENHANCE trial provided more evidence that there may be a favorable benefit/risk ratio to administering activated protein C in adults, but was unable to make definitive conclusions about efficacy due to the lack of a placebo control, and particularly in children, there is a high risk of hemorrhage (27.4% in patients aged 0-18 years)