Middle molecules and small-molecular-weight proteins in ESRD: properties and strategies for their removal

Adv Ren Replace Ther. 2003 Oct;10(4):270-8. doi: 10.1053/j.arrt.2003.11.004.


Molecular weight has traditionally been the parameter most commonly used to classify uremic toxins, with a value of approximately 500 Da frequently used as a demarcation point below which the molecular weights of small nitrogenous waste products fall. This toxin group, the most extensively studied from a clinical perspective, is characterized by a high degree of water solubility and the absence of protein binding. However, uremia is mediated by the retention of a plethora of other compounds having characteristics that differ significantly from those of the previously mentioned group. As opposed to the relative homogeneity of the nitrogenous metabolite class, other uremic toxins collectively are a very heterogeneous group, not only with respect to molecular weight but also other characteristics, such as protein binding and hydrophobicity. A recently proposed classification scheme by the European Uraemic Toxin Work Group subdivides the remainder of molecules into 2 categories: protein-bound solutes and middle molecules. For the latter group, the Work Group proposes a molecular weight range (500-60,000 Da) that incorporates many toxins identified since the original middle molecule hypothesis, for which the upper molecular weight limit was approximately 2,000 Da. In fact, low-molecular-weight peptides and proteins (LMWPs) comprise nearly the entire middle molecule category in the new scheme. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the middle molecule class of uremic toxins, with the focus on LMWPs. A brief review of LMWP metabolism under conditions of normal (and in a few cases, abnormal) renal function will be presented. The physical characteristics of several LMWPs will also be presented, including molecular weight, conformation, and charge. Specific LMWPs to be covered will include beta 2-microglobulin, complement proteins (C3a and Factor D), leptin, and proinflammatory cytokines. The article will also include a discussion of the treatment-related factors influencing dialytic removal of middle molecules. Once these factors, which include membrane characteristics, protein-membrane interactions, and solute removal mechanisms, are discussed, an overview of the different therapeutic strategies used to enhance clearance of these compounds is provided.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Absorption
  • Charcoal / therapeutic use*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Humans
  • Ion Exchange Resins / therapeutic use*
  • Kidney Diseases / metabolism
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / metabolism*
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / therapy*
  • Molecular Weight
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Renal Dialysis* / trends


  • Ion Exchange Resins
  • Proteins
  • Charcoal