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Frontiers in Medicine



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The endothelial glycocalyx is a gel-like layer on the luminal side of blood vessels that is composed of glycosaminoglycans and the proteins that tether them to the plasma membrane. Interest in its properties and function has grown, particularly in the last decade, as its importance to endothelial barrier function has come to light. Endothelial glycocalyx studies have revealed that many critical illnesses result in its degradation or removal, contributing to endothelial dysfunction and barrier break-down. Loss of the endothelial glycocalyx facilitates the direct access of immune cells and deleterious agents (e.g., proteases and reactive oxygen species) to the endothelium, that can then further endothelial cell injury and dysfunction leading to complications such as edema, and thrombosis. Here, we briefly describe the endothelial glycocalyx and the primary components thought to be directly responsible for its degradation. We review recent literature relevant to glycocalyx damage in several critical illnesses (sepsis, COVID-19, trauma and diabetes) that share inflammation as a common denominator with actions by several common agents (hyaluronidases, proteases, reactive oxygen species, etc.). Finally, we briefly cover strategies and therapies that show promise in protecting or helping to rebuild the endothelial glycocalyx such as steroids, protease inhibitors, anticoagulants and resuscitation strategies.