Renal specimens were obtained at surgery or postmortem from patients with autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD). Patients had either serum creatinine (SCr) below 350 mumol/liter (N = 12) or terminal renal failure (N = 50). Specimens were examined by two independent observers using a carefully validated score system. Mean glomerular diameters were similar in ADPKD patients with early renal failure (176 +/- 38 microns) and in victims of traffic accidents (177 +/- 23 microns), while they were significantly greater in diabetics with comparable renal function (205 +/- 16 microns). Glomerular diameters in ADPKD patients with terminal renal failure (191 +/- 45 microns) and with early renal failure were not significantly different. On average, 29% of glomeruli (17 to 62) were globally sclerosed in early renal failure, and 49% (19 to 93) in terminal renal failure. The proportion of glomeruli with segmental sclerosis was less than 4% in both groups. Marked vascular sclerosis, interstitial fibrosis, and tubular atrophy were present in early renal failure, and even more so in terminal renal failure. Interstitial infiltrates were scarce and consisted mainly of CD4 positive lymphocytes and CD68 positive macrophages. Immunestaining with monoclonal renin antibodies showed an increased juxtaglomerular index and expression of renin by arterioles adjacent to cysts, as well as by cyst wall epithelia. The data show more severe vascular and interstitial, but not glomerular, changes in ADPKD with advanced as compared to early renal failure.