A small absolute change in serum creatinine level, 0.3 mg/dl, is used by Acute Kidney Injury Network (AKIN) and Kidney Disease Improving Global Outcomes (KDIGO) guidelines to define the presence of Acute Kidney Injury (AKI). The base of this definition was formed by several studies findings of strong association between adverse outcomes and minor changes in serum creatinine level. Subsequently, evidence emerged suggesting that this may not be true to the same extent in people with pre-existing CKD, because variations in serum creatinine concentration are common in these individuals.
As with all other laboratory tests, serum creatinine measurements are affected by within- and between-sample coefficients of variation, intra-individual variation and biologic variation. Biological variation may result from variations in diet, muscle mass and breakdown, tubular secretion, variability in volume homeostasis and from medications uses. The variation in measured serum creatinine level could be as high as 9%. Because only a small increase in serum creatinine is needed to meet AKI criteria, random variation in creatinine level may be a significant contributor to AKI diagnosis in the absence of a true reduction in GFR. This is called a false-positive AKI. It has been shown that high variation in serum creatinine in the period, of days, preceding the development of AKI was not associated with the anticipated inpatient mortality or dialysis. This observation supports the existence of false-positive AKI.
Lin et al demonstrated, using the KDIGO definition, an 8% overall false-positive rate for AKI diagnosis. This rate was much higher, 31%, for the subgroup of CKD patients with serum creatinine ≥1.5 mg/dl. Therefore, an absolute change in serum creatinine of 0.3 mg/dl may represent a relative inconsequential change in GFR in CKD patients rather than a superimposed acute injury.
In my opinion, false-positive AKI could largely explain why most randomized trials for early intervention in AKI have been unsuccessful in improving outcomes. AKI is misclassified under frameworks that do not reflect true GFR reduction. Consequently, patients with false-positive AKI are included in AKI studies and dilute observed effect sizes. This potentially leads to false-conclusions that certain interventions are ineffective and do not improve outcomes. The underlying severe disease is quite likely the actual mediator of adverse outcomes seen in AKI. Therefore, small changes in serum creatinine may be nothing more than a reflection of the severity of the underlying disease process. This point remains a topic of hot debate. Moreover, AKI definition using small increments in serum creatinine level has not been validated among patients with CKD.
It is obvious now that serum creatinine is an imperfect AKI biomarker; especially that it is being used on the basis of a relative change in value of a continuous variable instead of the crossing of a particular threshold. The ideal biomarker would accurately detect true reduction in GFR, be detectable early in the course of renal dysfunction to allow for timely intervention, and predict outcomes. It is likely that current AKI criteria will eventually be modified at least in part by sensitive and specific biomarkers of kidney injury. The use of such biomarkers will help in the development of a new paradigm for classifying AKI that is not only dependent upon serum creatinine. Meanwhile, the awareness about false-positive AKI should be highlighted and the limitations of serum creatinine, as an AKI biomarker, should be re-emphasized.
Authored by Mohammed A. Kaballo, Nephrology Fellow, Ireland