Background: In response to chronic hyperglycemia, microvascular cells undergo stress and injury, which can lead to cell death. We characterized a proapoptotic signaling pathway whereby high glucose evokes an intrinsic, caspase-9-dependent mechanism of cell death in human mesangial cells.
Methods: Biochemical (caspase activity, cytochrome-c release, etc.) and morphologic (chromatin condensation and nuclear segmentation) features of apoptotic cell death were assessed in cultured human mesangial cells exposed to high glucose, a risk factor for mesangial cell injury and diabetic glomerulosclerosis. Proapoptotic signaling was also analyzed in the db/db murine model of kidney injury in diabetes.
Results: Incubation in high glucose caused cytotoxicity and apoptosis in mesangial cells. High glucose stimulated mitochondrial release of cytochrome-c, cleavage of procaspase-9, and caspase-9 enzyme activity, suggesting an intrinsic pathway of proapoptotic signaling. In contrast, caspase-8 was unaffected by high glucose. A cell-permeable, caspase-9-selective inhibitor blocked caspase-3 activation and prevented chromatin condensation and nuclear segmentation in cells treated with high glucose. To determine whether an intrinsic signaling pathway occurs in the diabetic kidney in vivo, apoptosis was investigated in diabetic 8- and 16-week db/db murine kidneys. Effector caspases-3 and -7 were activated in diabetic db/db kidneys but not in age-matched nondiabetic db/m controls. At 16 weeks, apoptotic cells in db/db glomeruli were identified on the basis of nuclear segmentation and DNA fragmentation. Apoptosis of glomerular cells correlated with expansion of the mesangial matrix and with worsening of albuminuria. Consistent with an intrinsic signaling pathway, caspase-9 cleavage was elevated only in db/db kidneys, whereas activation of caspase-8 and caspase-12 was undetectable.
Conclusion: These findings support the hypothesis that hyperglycemia evokes an intrinsic pathway of proapoptotic signaling in mesangial cells. In addition, these results point to an important role for the intrinsic pathway in microvascular injury in the diabetic kidney in vivo.