News Release

The same cell type can help or hinder kidney repair after acute injury

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Keck School of Medicine of USC

Injured Kidney

image: A mouse kidney one month after acute kidney injury. Cells that proliferated in response to the injury are shown in green. view more 

Credit: Image by Louisa M. S. Gerhardt/McMahon Lab

The USC Stem Cell laboratory of Andy McMahon has identified a type of injured cell that might contribute to the transition from an acute kidney injury to chronic kidney disease, as described in a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The same issue of PNAS also features an accompanying Q&A with McMahon to mark his recent election as a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Acute kidney injury can be a common side effect of surgery, sepsis or certain prescription drugs, and there is no effective treatment," said McMahon, who is the W.M. Keck Provost and University Professor of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, and Biological Sciences at USC. "Even a mild or moderate injury can progress into chronic kidney disease, which affects 9.1 percent of the world's population and causes 1.2 million deaths each year."

The adult kidney lacks stem cells to regenerate damaged tissue in its approximately 1 million filtering units, which are called nephrons. Damage predominantly occurs in a segment of the nephron known as the proximal tubule. Fortunately, differentiated proximal tubule cells (PTCs) do have their own capacity to repair.

The repair process

To understand this repair process, first authors Louisa M. S. Gerhardt, Jing Liu, and their colleagues in the McMahon Lab pioneered a way to track injured PTCs in lab mice by using a protein called keratin-20, which the cells tend to produce after acute kidney injury.

As expected, when a sudden injury provoked the death of some PTCs, surviving ones multiplied to repair the injury. However, weeks after kidney function was restored, the scientists observed that PTCs, which failed to repair normally, appeared at the site of the original injury, and also in regions remote from the initial injury. Unlike normal PTCs, these damaged cells showed activity of gene networks implicated in inflammation, scarring, and cell migration-- features associated with a slow progression to chronic kidney disease.

How damaged PTCS may promote disease progression

Some of the harmful PTCs showed activity in both genes that support survival and genes that promote programmed cell death, the normal process through which irreparably damaged cells self-destruct. As is observed in cancers, pro-survival genes may prevent programmed cell death, despite abnormalities that would normally limit cell survival, making it more likely for damaged cells to linger, promoting disease progression.

"This research presents a dynamic picture of how the initial injury, even if mild, leads to the creation of harmful PTCs that likely contribute to chronic kidney disease," said McMahon, who is also the Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. "Our study also raises the possibility of targeting these harmful PTCs for destruction, either by priming them for immune attack or by removing the genes that are interfering with the normal safeguard of programmed cell death."


About the study

Additional co-authors of the study include Kari Koppitch and Pietro E. Cippa in the McMahon Lab.

Fifty percent of this work was supported by U.S. federal funding from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to the (Re)Building a Kidney consortium (partnership grant U01DK107350 and program grant UC2DK126024). The remainder of the funding came from the German Research Foundation (postdoctoral scholarship GE 3179/1-1), Swiss National Science Foundation (grant 167773), Gianella Foundation and Balli Foundation.

About Keck School of Medicine of USC

Founded in 1885, the Keck School of Medicine of USC is one of the nation's leading medical institutions, known for innovative patient care, scientific discovery, education, and community service. Medical and graduate students work closely with world-renowned faculty and receive hands-on training in one of the nation's most diverse communities. They participate in cutting-edge research as they develop into tomorrow's health leaders. With more than 900 resident physicians across 50 specialty and subspecialty programs, the Keck School is the largest educator of physicians practicing in Southern California.

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