The first step in renal processing involves the filtration of plasma in the glomerulus. Glomerular filtration is a process of bulk flow: water and low molecular weight substances move from the lumen of the capillary, across the filtration membrane, and into Bowmanís space.
What is filtered? Any low-molecular weight substance that is freely dissolved in plasma is filtered. This includes various polar organic molecules such as glucose or amino acids, ions, peptides, drugs, and waste products of organic metabolism such as creatinine and urea. Because filtration involves bulk flow, the concentration of a substance in Bowmanís space will be the same as its concentration in the plasma.
What is not filtered? Cells, of course, are too large to be filtered. Importantly, proteins are NOT filtered, but are retained in the plasma. Also, small molecular weight substances that are bound to proteins will not be filtered. It is the structure of the filtration membrane that prevents proteins from being filtered.
There are three layers that make up the filtration membrane: two epithelia and the basement membrane that lies between them. Figure 1 is a three-dimensional illustration of part of a capillary loop in the glomerulus and depicts the layers making up the filtration membrane.
Figure 2 depicts a cross-section of the filtration membrane, as might be seen in a high-powered transmission EM. A substance that is filtered passes first through a fenestra in the capillary endothelium (red). Next, it passes across the glomerular basement membrane (tan), which consists of a network of collagen fibrils and other structural proteins. Finally, the substance passes through the filtration slits, that are found between the interdigitating foot processes (blue and green).
A structure called the slit diaphragm (pink), made of various proteins that are synthesized by the podocytes, extends across the filtration slits. The slit diaphragm is one of the most important barriers to the filtration of protein. Proteins from adjacent foot processes interact to form a mesh-like barrier that appears to exclude proteins based on their size.
When the filtration membrane is not functioning properly, it ceases to be an effective barrier. What then occurs is proteinuria, an abnormal accumulation of protein in the urine. A very small amount of protein gets filtered normally, but this is almost completely reabsorbed in the proximal tubule by endocytosis. If protein is detected in the urine, it usually means that there is a breakdown in the filtration barrier.
There are a number of ways that the filtration membrane can be
damaged. Congenital proteinuria is a rare, inherited
form of kidney disease. Congenital proteinuria is caused by
genetic mutations that disrupt key structural proteins in the slit
Acquired disorders may also disrupt the structure of the podocyte
foot processes and filtration slits and cause proteinuria. The
foot processes retract and the podocytes make broad flat contacts
with the basement membrane, a condition known as podocyte
effacement. The major disorders that disrupt the filtration
barrier are diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and glomerulonephritis.
In diabetes mellitus, hyperglycemia and/or reduced insulin
signaling trigger a set of changes in the filtration membrane that
cause a loss of selectivity and result in proteinuria.
Hypertension is damaging because the high pressure in the
glomerular capillaries damages the filtration membrane.
Glomerulonephritis is really a set of different disorders in which
the filtration membrane is damaged due to immune system attack and
inflammation. Some types of glomerulonephritis can be
treated with glucocorticoids.
When proteinuria is severe (greater than 3.5g/day), it is called nephrotic syndrome. Nephrotic syndrome consists of a set of signs and symptoms, and may occur as a consequence of any of the various diseases that affect the filtration membrane. Excessive proteinuria causes a low level of protein in the plasma. This combined with sodium retention leads to edema. Other signs of nephrotic syndrome are hyperlipidemia and hypertension.
The degree of proteinuria is a good predictor for the progression of chronic renal disease. This is due to the fact that high levels of protein in the filtrate have a damaging effect on the renal tubules. Increased endocytosis of protein by renal tubular cells ultimately stimulates inflammation and fibrosis, and leads to the loss of nephrons.
Because of the pathogenic effect of filtered protein, treatments that decrease proteinuria will have a renoprotective effect. Good control of blood pressure is also important. Several major studies have shown that drugs that block the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) (ACE inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers) are particularly effective at reducing proteinuria. These drugs appear to be helpful even beyond their effect on blood pressure, and this is because of the specific effects of angiotensin II within the kidney. One effect is that the efferent arteriole vasoconstricts more in response to angiotensin II, and so blocking the RAAS prevents excessive pressure in the glomerular capillaries. Another is that angiotensin II causes changes in the renal corpuscle that affect the permeability and selectivity of the filtration membrane.