CD44 is an adhesion molecule involved in a wide range of cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions. The standard form of CD44 (CD44S) is a 85-90-kD glycoprotein, but alternative splicing of RNA encoding 10 variable exons (V1-V10) can give rise to many different CD44 variant protein isoforms of higher molecular weight. CD44 isoforms containing the V6 exon play a crucial role in tumour metastasis and lymphocyte activation. However, the role of CD44V6 in the kidney is unknown. The aim of this study was to examined renal CD44V6 expression in health, disease and in vitro. Immunohistochemistry staining with the V6-specific 1.1ASML antibody identified constitutive CD44V6 expression by occasional cortical tubular epithelial cells and medullary tubules in normal rat kidney. In immune-induced kidney disease (rat anti-glomerular basement membrane glomerulonephritis), there was a marked increase in CD44V6 expression by cortical tubules, particularly in areas of tubulointerstitial damage, which was associated with focal macrophage infiltration. There was also a marked increase in CD44V6 expression by damaged tubules in a model of non-immune kidney disease (unilateral ureteric obstruction). Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction revealed a complex pattern of CD44V6-containing mRNA isoforms in normal rat kidney. This pattern of CD44V6 splicing was essentially unaltered in disease. The NRK52E normal rat kidney tubular epithelial cell line expresses both CD44S and CD44V6. Stimulation of NRK52E cells with IL-1 or transforming growth factor-beta 1 induced a two-to-five-fold increase in the expression of both CD44S and CD44V6. Furthermore, triggering of NRK52E cells by antibodies to CD44S or CD44V6, but not isotype control antibodies, induced secretion of monocyte chemoattractant protein-1. In conclusion, this study has identified expression of the tumour-associated marker CD44V6 in tubular epithelial cells in normal and diseased rat kidney, and suggests that signalling through the CD44V6 molecule may participate in the pathogenesis of experimental kidney disease.