Cystatin C is a nonglycosylated basic protein produced at a constant rate by all investigated nucleated cells. It is freely filtered by the renal glomeruli and primarily catabolized in the tubuli (not secreted or reabsorbed as an intact molecule). Because serum cystatin C concentration is independent of age, sex, and muscle mass, it has been postulated to be an improved marker of glomerular filtration rate (GFR) compared with serum creatinine level. We compared serum cystatin C level with other markers of GFR, such as serum creatinine level and creatinine clearance, and analyzed their variations based on iothalamate labeled with iodine 125 ((125)I-iothalamate) clearance ((125)I-ICl), used as the gold standard for GFR. The concentrations of the two different markers of GFR in patients with impaired renal function were classified according to (125)I-ICl. Twenty individuals with normal renal function ((125)I-ICl, 128 +/- 23 mL/min/1.73 m(2)) were used as the control group. Serum cystatin C level showed a greater sensitivity (93.4%) than serum creatinine level (86.8%). Also, serum cystatin C showed the greatest proportion of increased values in patients with impaired renal function (100%) compared with serum creatinine level (92.15%). Serum cystatin C levels started to increase to greater than normal values when GFR was 88 mL/min/1.73 m(2), whereas serum creatinine level began to increase when GFR was 75 mL/min/1.73 m(2). These data suggest that measurement of serum cystatin C may be useful to estimate GFR, especially to detect mild reductions in GFR, and therefore may be important in the detection of early renal insufficiency in a variety of renal diseases for which early treatment is critical.