Researchers have identified proteins that plays an important role in the kidney scarring caused by chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes. They said they hope the discovery can lead to a new strategy for preventing kidney failure. The findings appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (JASN).

Benjamin Humphreys MD, PhD, from Washington University School of Medicine, and his colleagues examined the complex process of scarring, or fibrosis, in failing kidneys, and discovered that proteins in the Wnt signaling pathway play a critical role in the crosstalk between cells as scarring occurs. Wnt proteins are important in development but are normally turned off in healthy kidneys. When the researchers boosted expression of Wnt proteins in the kidneys of healthy mice, the organs developed fibrosis.

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“This means that drugs targeting Wnts might be an effective strategy for humans with chronic kidney disease,” said Humphreys.

The investigators said they were were surprised to find that Wnt proteins cause kidney fibrosis without inflammation.

“In the models we typically use to study in the laboratory, and also in human fibrosis, there is always some degree of inflammation, so to not find any was unexpected,” explained Dr. Humphreys. “We conclude that inflammation is not required for the development of kidney fibrosis, and this suggests that purely anti-inflammatory drugs may not be as effective at treating chronic kidney disease.