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Glomerular epithelial cell (podocyte) injury is characterized by foot process retraction, slit diaphragm reorganization, and degradation of podocyte-specific proteins. However, the mechanisms underlying podocyte injury are largely unknown. The ubiquitin C-terminal hydrolase-L1 (UCH-L1) is a key modulator of ubiquitin modification in neurons. Like neurons, UCH-L1 expression was associated with an undifferentiated status in cultured human podocytes, whereas differentiation and arborization decreased UCH-L1 and monoUb expression. Inhibition of UCH-L1 induced time and concentration-dependent process formation with α-actinin-4 distribution to the cell membrane and processes. An immunohistochemical approach was used to evaluate whether UCH-L1 expression was associated with podocyte injury in 15 different human glomerular diseases. Whereas normal kidneys expressed no UCH-L1 and little ubiquitin, a subset of human glomerulopathies associated with podocyte foot process effacement (membranous nephropathy, SLE class V, FSGS)de novoexpressed UCH-L1 in podocyte cell bodies, nuclei, and processes. Interestingly, UCH-L1 expression correlated with podocyte ubiquitin content and internalization of the podocyte-specific proteins nephrin and α-actinin-4. In contrast, minimal change glomerulonephritis, a reversible disease, demonstrated minimal UCH-L1 and ubiquitin expression with intact α-actinin-4 but internalized nephrin. Glomerular kidney diseases typically not associated with foot process effacement (SLE class IV, ANCA+ necrotizing GN, amyloidosis, IgA nephritis) expressed intermediate to no UCH-L1 and ubiquitin. These studies show a role for UCH-L1 and ubiquitin modification in podocyte differentiation and injury. Copyright © 2008 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.