News | 14 July 2020

Grant of 1.9 million euros for research on feeding ICU patients

Joint project led by Maastricht UMC+ and Oost-Limburg Hospital

Joint research by a total of nine Dutch and Belgian hospitals, led by Maastricht UMC+ and Oost-Limburg Hospital in Genk, which will look at protein-rich tube feeding for ICU patients with the aim of accelerating recovery, has received a grant of 1.9 million euros. The grant was awarded by ZonMw, the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, and the Belgian counterpart of ZonMw, the Belgian Health Care Knowledge Centre (KCE).

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the relevance of this research even more strongly. At the end of March and in early April, Intensive Care Units were bursting at the seams with seriously ill COVID-19 patients. After weeks in intensive care, the muscle strength and condition of these patients had fallen to a dramatically low level in many cases. Recovery takes months and requires a lot of energy. But non-coronavirus patients also face the problem of recovery following a stay in the ICU, particularly an extensive stay.

Loss of muscle mass
ICEach year, some 92,000 patients are admitted to an ICU in the Netherlands and Belgium. Of those patients, 25-30% stay in the unit for 10 days on average and are ventilated for more than three days. During the first week on the ICU, these patients lose 10-15% of muscle mass, which causes them to weaken further, leading to a long stay in intensive care and then elsewhere in the hospital. Protein-rich tube feeding of IC patients could possibly have a positive effect on muscle building and result in patients retaining muscle mass and recovering more quickly.

Making savings
The researchers now want to study the impact of tube feeding with a high protein content, compared to tube feeding with a standard protein content, on the recovery of IC patients up to six months after being discharged from intensive care. The study will look specifically at the effects on condition (e.g. how far a person can walk), muscle strength (e.g. hand grip strength) and the return to work. If it can be shown that ICU patients recover better with the help of a protein-rich diet, millions of euros could be saved each year.

Upper limit
It might seem obvious that a higher intake of protein would have a beneficial effect on the recovery of ICU patients, but it is not yet clear whether this is actually the case. For example, there is still the question of whether these extra proteins can help to build muscle, as there is an upper limit to the amount of protein that can be processed by the bodies of seriously ill patients.

The grant of 1.9 million euros was awarded by ZonMw, the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development, and its Belgian counterpart, the Belgian Health Care Knowledge Centre (KCE). The two institutions are together investing 6 million euros in comparative, applied clinical trials under the name BeNeFIT (Belgium – Netherlands Funding of International Trials). A total of four Dutch and five Belgian hospitals are taking part in the research on the effect of protein-rich feeding on the recovery of IC patients.