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Role of glucagon in protein catabolism

Thiessen, Steven E.; Gunst, Jan; Van den Berghe, Greet

Current Opinion in Critical Care: August 2018 - Volume 24 - Issue 4 - p 228–234
doi: 10.1097/MCC.0000000000000509
METABOLIC SUPPORT: Edited by Arthur R.H. van Zanten

Purpose of review Glucagon is known as a key hormone in the control of glucose and amino acid metabolism. Critical illness is hallmarked by a profound alteration in glucose and amino acid metabolism, accompanied by muscle wasting and hypoaminoacidemia. Here we review novel insights in glucagon (patho)physiology and discuss the recently discovered role of glucagon in controlling amino acid metabolism during critical illness.

Recent findings The role of glucagon in glucose metabolism is much more complex than originally anticipated, and glucagon has shown to be a key player in amino acid metabolism. During critical illness, the contribution of glucagon in bringing about hyperglycemia appeared to be quite limited, whereas increased glucagon availability seems to contribute importantly to the typical hypoaminoacidemia via stimulating hepatic amino acid breakdown, without affecting muscle wasting. Providing amino acids further increases hepatic amino acid breakdown, mediated by a further increase in glucagon.

Summary Glucagon plays a crucial role in amino acid metabolism during critical illness, with an apparent feedback loop between glucagon and circulating amino acids. Indeed, elevated glucagon may, to a large extent, be responsible for the hypoaminoacidemia in the critically ill and infusing amino acids increases glucagon-driven amino acid breakdown in the liver. These novel insights further question the rationale for amino acid administration during critical illness.

Clinical Division and Laboratory of Intensive Care Medicine, Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

Correspondence to Professor Dr Greet Van den Berghe, Intensive Care Medicine, KU Leuven University and Hospitals, Herestraat 49, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium. Tel: +32 16344021; fax: +32 16344015; e-mail:

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