CD44 is a transmembrane proteoglycan that serves as a cell adhesion receptor and is involved in cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions, both key events in the pathogenesis of clinical and experimental glomerulonephritis. In addition, recent evidence suggests that the binding of cytokines to proteoglycans could regulate cytokine function. We have, therefore, studied the expression of CD44 by mesangial cells in culture and in experimental (Thy 1.1 model) and human glomerulonephritis. Mesangial expression of CD44 detected by immunohistochemistry was markedly increased four days after induction of the Thy 1.1 model, coinciding with the peak of mesangial cell proliferation and macrophage infiltration. Analysis of 92 human renal biopsies by immunohistochemistry showed that CD44 expression by infiltrating cells within the glomerulus, in focal interstitial infiltrates and within the interstitium (interstitial fibroblasts, and extracellular matrix), was significantly increased in biopsies with a greater degree of histological damage. There was, however, no increase in mesangial staining in diseased kidneys as compared with control sections. In contrast, cultured human mesangial cells expressed CD44 strongly when assayed by immunohistochemistry, immunoprecipitation and Northern blotting. CD44, therefore, is an example of a protein strongly expressed by mesangial cells in vitro and weakly or not at all in vivo, but which is up-regulated in a disease model. In human disease, however, little expression was detected within the glomerular mesangium, which may be related to the greater proliferation and more profound disruption of mesangial architecture seen in the Thy 1.1 model. CD44 expression by infiltrating cells and by components of the interstitium could, however, play an important role in the pathogenesis of chronic progressive renal disease in humans.