Background: Chronic allograft nephropathy is an important cause of graft failure. Many donor and recipient factors contribute to its development. Prospective analysis of these factors has been hindered by the lack of sensitive and specific indicators of renal injury. As a consequence protocol biopsies have been increasingly used in the assessment of renal allograft injury. We performed protocol renal allograft biopsies to prospectively examine the role of important determinants and mediators of chronic allograft nephropathy.
Methods: A total of 51 consecutive cadaveric renal transplant recipients entered a randomized prospective study of tacrolimus (Tac) versus cyclosporine (CsA) microemulsion based immunosuppression. Study patients underwent protocol renal allograft biopsies at the time of engraftment and at 3, 6 and 12 months post-transplantation. Biopsies were analyzed by quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for mRNA for transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta), thrombospondin, and fibronectin. Measurements of renal structural injury were estimated by quantitative assessment of interstitial fibrosis and glomerulosclerosis. Changes in profibrotic growth factors and renal structural injury were related to donor and recipient determinants by stepwise regression analysis.
Results: Longitudinal assessment of renal injury demonstrated an early and progressive increase in mRNA for TGF-beta, thrombospondin (TSP) and fibronectin (FBN): TGF-beta baseline, 1.9 +/- 0.2 log copies; TGF-beta 6 months, 2.5 +/- 0.2 log copies, P < 0.05 6 months vs. baseline; TSP baseline, 1.9 +/- 0.2 log copies; TSP 6 months, 2.4 +/- 0.2 log copies, P < 0.05 6 months vs. baseline; FBN baseline, 2.0 +/- 0.2 log copies; FBN 12 months, 2.3 +/- 0.2 log copies, P < 0.05 12 months vs. baseline. This increase in profibrotic growth factors within the allograft was associated with a significant increase in interstitial fibrosis (Vvi) on renal biopsies: Vvi baseline, 13 +/- 1%; Vvi 3 months, 18 +/- 1%; Vvi 6 months, 28 +/- 2%; Vvi 12 months, 34 +/- 2%; P < 0.05 3, 6, and 12 months vs. baseline. Histological analysis demonstrated chronic allograft nephropathy in 4% biopsies at 3 months, 12% at 6 months and in 49% at 12 months. These changes in renal structure were not associated with any change in creatinine clearance (CCr): CCr 3 months, 56 +/- 2 mL/min, CCr 24 months, 56 +/- 2 mL/min; P=NS. Stepwise regression analysis of key donor and recipient determinants of chronic renal injury identified calcineurin inhibitors and acute rejection episodes as important factors involved in the development of chronic renal injury. In particular, the use of cyclosporine compared to tacrolimus was associated with a tenfold increase in TGF-beta mRNA (TGF-beta mRNA at 6 months, CsA vs. Tac, 3 +/- 0.3 vs. 2 +/- 0.3 log copies, P < 0.05), interstitial fibrosis (Vvi at 6 months, CsA vs. Tac, 33 +/- 4% vs. 24 +/- 2%, P < 0.05). Changes in growth factors and renal structure predicted impaired renal function (CCr at 12 months, CsA vs. Tac, 53 +/- 4 mL/min vs. 62 +/- 2 mL/min, P < 0.05). Similarly, acute rejection episodes were associated with an accelerated development of interstitial fibrosis (Vvi at 6 months, acute rejection vs. no rejection, 34 +/- 3% vs. 25 +/- 2%; P < 0.05), but not with changes in TGF-beta, thrombospondin or fibronectin expression.
Conclusion: Our results suggest that structural injury develops early in the natural history of the renal allograft and is mediated, in part, by the early up-regulation of profibrotic growth factors. We have determined that calcineurin inhibitors, in particular cyclosporine, and acute rejection episodes are key factors in the development of renal structural injury.