Epithelial to Mesenchymal Transition During Late Deterioration of Human Kidney Transplants: The Role of Tubular Cells in Fibrogenesis


*Corresponding author: Philip F. Halloran, phil.halloran@ualberta.ca


The hallmark of failing renal transplants is tubular atrophy and interstitial fibrosis (TA/IF). Injury to tubular epithelial cells (TEC) could contribute to fibrogenesis via epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT). We examined the features of EMT in renal transplants that developed TA/IF. Biopsies from 10 allograft kidneys with impaired function and TA/IF and 10 biopsies from transplants with stable function were compared to their implantation biopsies. Relative to implantation biopsies, TEC in TA/IF kidneys showed loss of epithelial markers (E-cadherin, cytokeratin) with altered distribution. Some TEC also showed new cytoplasmic expression of mesenchymal markers vimentin, S100A4, and alpha smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) and collagen synthesis marker heat shock protein (HSP-47), both in deteriorating and atrophic tubules. Double immunostaining showed coexpression of cytokeratin and vimentin, S100A4 and HSP-47, indicating intermediate stages of EMT in TA/IF. These changes were absent or much less in transplants with stable function. EMT features in the TA/IF group correlated with serum creatinine (vimentin, S100A4, HSP-47), history of T-cell-mediated rejection (cytokeratin, S100A4) and proteinuria (cytokeratin). These findings support a model in which the TEC damage induces loss of epithelial features and expression of fibroblast features, as a common pathway of deterioration by either immunologic or nonimmunologic processes.