1. The concentration of alkali-soluble protein, DNA and RNA in percutaneous muscle biopsy specimens was analysed. Tissue alkali-soluble protein/DNA ratio is a measure of muscle protein concentration, while tissue RNA/DNA ratio may reflect the capacity for protein synthesis.
2. Patients with weight loss due to cancer (n = 6) were compared with metabolically healthy patients before elective surgery (n = 7). Alkali-soluble protein/DNA and RNA/DNA ratios in the weight loss group were 248 (14) g/g and 1.3 (0.1) g/g respectively as compared with 404 (13) g/g and 2.1 (0.1) g/g in otherwise healthy patients. All of the alkali-soluble protein/DNA ratios and 5/6 of the RNA/DNA ratios in the weight loss group were below the 95% confidence interval for the healthy control subjects.
3. Patients undergoing elective open cholecystectomy (n = 7) were studied preoperatively and on days 3, 10, 20 and 30 post-operatively. The alkali-soluble protein/DNA ratio remained unchanged on postoperative day 3 but decreased by 8.7% (P < 0.01), 9.6% (P < 0.05) and 20.4% (P < 0.01) on days 10, 20 and 30 respectively in patients eating at will after the operation. No significant post-operative changes in alkali-soluble protein/DNA ratio were seen in patients given post-operative total parenteral nutrition with (n = 9) or without (n = 7) glycyl-glutamine supplementation for 3 days after surgery.
4. In conclusion, patients with weight loss due to malignant disease have a low muscle protein concentration. Elective surgery of medium magnitude results in a decrease in muscle protein lasting for more than 30 days. This is in contrast to patients receiving post-operative total parenteral nutrition, in whom no significant reduction in muscle protein was noted following surgery regardless of whether or not the total parenteral nutrition was supplemented with glutamine.