Sialic acid (SA), N-acetylated derivatives of neuraminic acid, play a central role in the biomedical functioning of humans. The normal range of total sialic acid (TSA) level in serum/plasma is 1.58-2.22 mmol L−1, the free form of SA only constituting 0.5-3 μmol L−1 and the lipid-associated (LSA) forms 10-50 μmol L−1. Notably, considerably higher amounts of free SA are found in urine than in serum/plasma (approximately 50% of the total SA).
In inherited SA storage diseases such as Salla's disease, SA levels are elevated many times over, and their determination during clinical investigation is well established. Furthermore, a number of reports describe elevated SA levels in various other diseases, tentatively suggesting broader clinical utility for SA markers. Increased SA concentrations have been reported during inflammatory processes, probably resulting from increased levels of richly sialylated acute-phase glycoproteins. A connection between increased SA levels and elevated stroke and cardiovascular mortality risk has also been reported. In addition, SA levels are slightly increased in cancer, positively correlating with the degree of metastasis, as well as in alcohol abuse, diabetes, chronic renal failure and chronic glomerulonephritis. Several different mechanisms are assumed to underlie the elevated SA concentrations in these disorders.
The apparent non-specificity of SA to a given disease limits the potential clinical usefulness of SA determination. In addition, some non-pathological factors, such as aging, pregnancy and smoking, may cause changes in SA concentrations. The absolute increases in SA levels are also rather small (save those in inherited SA storage disorders); this further limits the clinical potential of SA as a marker.
Tentatively, SA markers might serve as adjuncts, when combined with other markers, in disease screening, disease progression follow-up, and in the monitoring of treatment response. To become clinically useful, however, the existing SA determination assays need to be considerably refined to reduce interferences, to be specific for certain SA forms, and to be more easy to use.