Structure may hold clues to help detect and combat kidney disease

Faculty scientists have made a key finding that could help develop an early test for kidney disease.

Dr Rachel Lennon from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell-Matrix Research, led the investigation that looked at why some people are more susceptible to kidney disease than others. In particular, the study looked at why impaired kidney function is more common in Afro-Caribbean individuals and in males.

Dr Lennon and her team focused on the structure around the cells in the kidney, as this is where they believed crucial differences may lie. Kidneys contain numerous small filter cells which help to maintain the blood in a healthy, steady state. The filters are surrounded by a mesh of two different types of proteins which act like scaffolding, giving structure and protection. It is these two proteins that the team wanted to investigate.

To do this, they used mass spectrometry to analyse the kidney tissue from mice who had a variety of genetic backgrounds – some of which they knew were more susceptible to kidney disease.

The team found that there were significant differences in the compositions of the two kidney proteins between the mice. This difference was found to be greater between mice of different genetic backgrounds as opposed to gender.

After the analysis, the team then used an electron microscope to get a closer look at the two types of cells. The team found that the cells from the various mice had structural differences – showing that both the composition and the structure of the scaffolding around the kidney filters changed between mice.

Dr Lennon comments: “The most surprising thing about our findings were that the mice weren’t actually exhibiting any symptoms of kidney disease and were all still in full health despite having this different structure in their filters. Their kidneys appeared to be functioning normally.”

The team are now looking to use human tissue to investigate the reasons behind these differences and are hoping that they will be able to find a mechanism that could be switched off before symptoms of kidney disease become more apparent and damage occurs:

“What we’re hoping is that this research will help develop a test that picks up kidney disease or even just a susceptibility to kidney disease before any damage has been done. We’re also keen to look at whether we could manipulate the process which leads to the structural change to develop new, more effective treatments.”

View Rachel Lennon’s Minute Lecture on kidneys: