Physiological and Pathological Roles in Human Adrenal of the Glomeruli-Defining Matrix Protein NPNT (Nephronectin)

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Primary aldosteronism is a common cause of hypertension, which becomes refractory if undiagnosed, but potentially curable when caused by an aldosterone-producing adenoma (APA). The discovery of somatic mutations and differences in clinical presentations led to recognition of small but common zona glomerulosa (ZG)–like adenomas, distinct from classical large zona fasciculata–like adenomas. The inverse correlation between APA size and aldosterone synthase expression prompted us to undertake a systematic study of genotype–phenotype relationships. After a microarray comparing tumor subtypes, in which NPNT (nephronectin) was the most highly (>12-fold) upregulated gene in ZG-like APAs, we aimed to determine its role in physiological and pathological aldosterone production. NPNT was identified by immunohistochemistry as a secreted matrix protein expressed exclusively around aldosterone-producing glomeruli in normal adrenal ZG and in aldosterone-dense ZG-like APAs; the highest expression was in ZG-like APAs with gain-of-function CTNNB1 mutations, whose removal cured hypertension in our patients. NPNT was absent from normal zona fasciculata, zona fasciculata–like APAs, and ZG adjacent to an APA. NPNT production was regulated by canonical Wnt pathway, and NPNT overexpression or silencing increased or reduced aldosterone, respectively. NPNT was proadhesive in primary adrenal and APA cells but antiadhesive and antiapoptotic in immortalized adrenocortical cells. The discovery of NPNT in the adrenal helped recognition of a common subtype of APAs and a pathway by which Wnt regulates aldosterone production. We propose that this arises through NPNT’s binding to cell-surface integrins, stimulating cell–cell contact within glomeruli, which define ZG. Therefore, NPNT or its cognate integrin could present a novel therapeutic target.

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