Open Journal of Nephrology, 2012, 2, 5-18
http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojneph.2012.22002 Published Online June 2012 (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ojneph)
Therapeutic Modalities in Diabetic Nephropathy:
William Brian Reeves1, Bishal B. Rawal1, Emaad M. Abdel-Rahman2, Alaa S. Awad1
1Department of Medicine, Division of Nephrology, Penn State Hershey Medical Center, Hershey, USA
2Department of Medicine, Division of Nephrology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, USA
Received February 11, 2012; revised March 19, 2012; accepted April 17, 2012
Diabetes mellitus is the leading cause of end stage renal disease and is responsible for more than 40% of all cases in the
United States. Several therapeutic interventions for the treatment of diabetic nephropathy have been developed and im-
plemented over the past few decades with some degree of success. However, the renal protection provided by these
therapeutic modalities is incomplete. More effective approaches are therefore urgently needed. Recently, several novel
therapeutic strategies have been explored in treating DN patients including Islet cell transplant, Aldose reductase in-
hibitors, Sulodexide (GAC), Protein Kinase C (PKC) inhibitors, Connective tissue growth factor (CTGF) inhibitors,
Transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-β) inhibitors and bardoxolone. The benefits and risks of these agents are still
under investigation. This review aims to summarize the utility of these novel therapeutic approaches.
Keywords: Markers; Albuminuria; Diabetes; Therapy
Diabetes mellitus (DM) is a leading cause of morbidity
and mortality in the United States. DM is often compli-
cated by micro- and macrovascular involvement which
contribute to damage to one or more target organs. Dia-
betic nephropathy (DN) is a well-known microvascular
complication of diabetes and is responsible for 40% -
50% of all cases of end stage renal disease (ESRD) in the
U.S. adult population [1,2].
DN is defined by the presence of persistent pathologic
albuminuria of greater than 300 mg/24 hrs (macroalbu-
minuria) accompanied by abnormally elevated plasma
creatinine or diminished glomerular filtration rate (GFR)
. Histologically, DN manifests as diffuse or nodular
mesangial expansion, tubular and glomerular basement
membrane thickening, as well as interstitial fibrosis.
DN is usually preceded by microalbuminuria (urinary
albumin excretion > 30 mg but <300 mg/24 hrs) which is
the earliest clinical manifestation of renal involvement in
diabetic patients . The onsets of microalbuminuria and
overt nephropathy are variable in DM type 1 (DMT1)
and type 2 (DMT2). Patients with DMT1 have a more
predictable natural history and may present with micro-
albuminuria 7 - 10 years after being diagnosed with dia-
betes. About 20% - 45% of these patients progress to DN
over the next 10 years (almost 20 years after the diagno-
sis of DMT1) . On the other hand, patients with DMT2,
which comprise approximately 80% of all diabetics, may
have overt DN at the time of diagnosis since the duration
of diabetes is often not precisely known in this popula-
tion. The rate of progression of DN towards ESRD is
influenced by complex interactions between genetic pre-
disposition, dietary and lifestyle factors as well as thera-
peutic interventions. Compared to patients with normoal-
buminuria (urine albumin excretion < 30 mg/24 hrs), pa-
tients with persistent macroalbuminuria (overt DN) have
an almost 10-fold higher risk of developing ESRD .
Overt proteinuria is also an independent predictor of car-
diovascular morbidity and death in diabetic patients .
Current therapeutic options directed at delaying the
progression of diabetic nephropathy (DN) include inten-
sive blood glucose control, improved blood pressure
control, interruption of the RAAS using angiotensin-con-
verting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and/or angiotensin type 1
(AT1) receptor blockers (ARB) along with dietary modi-
fication and cholesterol-lowering agents (for review please
see: ). Despite aggressive multifactorial interventions,
(DN) remains the single leading cause of ESRD in the
United States. The cost of ESRD care for these patients
exceeds $10 billion/year. Therefore, more effective ap-
proaches are urgently needed.
In this article, we will review several novel therapeutic
strategies that have been explored recently in patients
with DN which may stop or even reverse disease pro-
*Conflict of interest: None.
opyright © 2012 SciRes. OJNeph
W. B. REEVES ET AL.
2. Diabetic Nephropathy Markers
Early diagnosis of DN is crucial for its effective manage-
ment. Thus, the search for reliable markers for this di-
sease has been the focus of many studies. Traditionally,
GFR has been considered the gold standard in the evalu-
ation of overt nephropathy. Several markers have been
used to measure GFR including inulin, iohexol, and io-
thalamate. However these methods require complex mea-
surements and are expensive, time consuming and not
readily feasible in clinical practice. The clearance of en-
dogenous creatinine is another index for GFR. However,
it requires timed urine collections and tends to overesti-
mate GFR due to tubular creatinine secretion. This has
led to the development of several equations for GFR
based on serum creatinine such as the Cockcroft-Gault
formula (C-G) , the Modification of Diet in Renal
Disease four-variable (MDRD-4) formula , and the
CKD-EPI formula  and the measurement of serum
cystatin C as an alternative to serum creatinine . A
study of patients with DMT2 found that serum cystatin C
more accurately identified those with a GFR < 60
ml/min/1.73 m2 than did serum creatinine, MDRD-4 and
C-G formulas . Therefore, cystatin C may be re-
garded as a superior measure of GFR, especially at lower
GFR levels, than serum creatinine. Unfortunately, cys-
tatin C measurements are more expensive than creatinine
and may yield falsely low GFR in certain circumstances
such as inflammation, steroid therapy and hyperthyroi-
Urine albumin excretion has received considerable at-
tention and has achieved widespread clinical use as a
marker of early DN and as a target for intervention. In-
creased urinary albumin excretion is the hallmark of DN
and estimating urinary albumin excretion is now con-
sidered the most reliable marker for assessing disease
progression and determining efficacy of treatment in dia-
betic patients. Nonetheless, urine microalbumin mea-
surements are subject to several limitations relating to
specimen collection, indexing to urine creatinine or vo-
lume, intrasubject variability and influences of medica-
tions, diet and activity which confound its interpretation
[11-15]. Thus, a prospective longitudinal study of 232
patients with DM found that the positive predictive value
of microalbuminuria as a marker of risk for DN was 43%
and the negative predictive value was 77% . There-
fore, microalbuminuria may not serve as a strong pre-
dictor of DN . On the other hand, macroalbuminuria
(overt proteinuria) develops at advanced stage of DN
when attempts to prevent progression to ESRD can be
very challenging. The discovery of better markers for
early detection of DN is an area of active investigation.
3. Candidate Markers in Future
Recently, certain cytokines, such as connective tissue
growth factor (CTGF), transforming growth factor-β
(TGF-β), and tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) have
emerged as potential markers of progression of DN (Ta-
ble 1). For instance, the number of CTGF messenger
RNA positive cells in the kidney biopsy was closely re-
lated to the renal biopsy fibrosis score and urinary CTGF
levels in 65 subjects, three of whom had diabetes .
Additional studies have suggested that the urinary excre-
tion of CTGF is related to both albuminuria and GFR in
DMT1 . Jaffa and colleagues measured the circulat-
ing and urinary levels of CTGF in 1050 subjects with
DMT1 from the DCCT/Epidemiology of Diabetes Inter-
ventions and Complications (EDIC) study . They
showed that significantly higher levels of plasma CTGF
are apparent in advanced kidney disease as measured by
increased urinary albumin excretion rate (AER), con-
cluding that plasma CTGF is a risk marker of diabetic
renal and vascular disease. More recently, urinary TGF-β
excretion was shown to be attenuated by ACE inhibition
in DMT2 patients with nephropathy .
In animal models of DMT1, the renal TNF-α level
(renal interstitial fluid and urinary TNF-α) showed an
early rise after the induction of diabetes , which pre-
ceded the rise in urinary albumin excretion by about 2
weeks suggesting a possible contribution of TNF-α in the
complicated pathogenic process resulting in microalbu-
minuria in diabetes. Further studies are necessary to as-
sess value of urinary CTGF, TGF-β and TNF-α as mar-
kers of DN progression.
Podocyte loss, effacement, and alterations of the po-
docyte cytoskeleton and structural proteins play a pivotal
role in the pathogenesis of DN. Podocytes have been
shown in the urine of diabetic patients with microalbu-
minuria (53%) and with macroalbuminuria (80%) using
immunofluorescence microscopy . The number of
podocytes in the urine of patients with macroalbuminuria
was significantly greater than in patients with microal-
Table 1. Diabetic nephropathy marker s.
Current markers Candidate markers in
1. Creatinine, Cystatin C (estimated GFR).
3. Macroalbuminuria or Proteinuria
1. Urinary podocytes
4. Smad 1
NGAL = Neutrophil Gelatinase-Associated Lipocalin; KIM-1 = Kidney In-
jury Molecule 1; CTGF = Connective tissue growth factor; TGF-β = Trans-
forming growth factor beta; TNF-α = Tumor necrosis factor alpha.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJNeph
W. B. REEVES ET AL. 7
buminuria (p < 0.01). Preliminary studies in animal mo-
dels of diabetes show that flow cytometry is a feasible
and less expensive method for assessing urinary podo-
cytes (Awad AS, unpublished data). Whether the mea-
surement of urinary podocytes may serve as a surrogate
marker not only for the progression of DN, but also for
the efficacy of potential therapies, is not clear at this
point. Additional research is needed to explore this pos-
More recently, Mima et al. demonstrated the critical
role of Smad1 in the development of mesangial matrix
expansion in the early phase of DN in Streptozotocin-
induced diabetic rats . Under diabetic conditions,
Smad1 regulates the genetic expression of type IV colla-
gen (Col4) which is a key component involved in me-
sangial expansion. They also showed a direct correlation
between urinary Smad1 levels and the severity of mesan-
gial expansion .
Additional promising biomarkers include neutrophil
gelatinase-associated lipocalin (NGAL) and kidney in-
jury molecule 1 (KIM-1). NGAL is a small, 25-kD pro-
tein that belongs to the lipocalin protein family and is
produced in epithelial cells and neutrophils. NGAL is an
established novel biomarker for early diagnosis of acute
kidney injury (AKI) [23-27]. It has also been linked as an
independent biomarker for predicting chronic kidney
disease progression . In a cohort of 56 patients with
DMT2, serum and urinary NGAL levels were evaluated
in 3 groups of varying degrees of proteinuria: normoal-
buminuria, microalbuminuria and overt DN . The
results revealed that all groups had increased NGAL le-
vels as compared to controls and both serum and urinary
NGAL levels correlated with the severity of renal disease
reaching highest levels in patients with overt DN. The
presence of elevated NGAL levels even in normoalbu-
minuric patients, who had no signs of glomerular damage,
raised the possibility that NGAL may be a useful, non-
invasive tool for early detection of incipient DN.
Urinary KIM-1 has also been proposed to be a novel
biomarker of AKI in humans [29,30]. KIM-1 is a trans-
membrane protein exclusively located in the proximal
tubules of the kidney and is markedly upregulated in
ischemic kidney damage. Nielsen et al.  studied both
NGAL and KIM-1 in DMT1 patients with different le-
vels of albuminuria (normo-, micro- and macroalbuminu-
ria) compared to non-diabetic control subjects. They also
evaluated the effect of ACE inhibition (lisinopril) on
urinary NGAL excretion in patients with DN. The results
of the study showed both urinary NGAL and KIM-1 to
be elevated in all groups of diabetic patients compared to
non-diabetics, reflecting possible utility of both NGAL
and KIM-1 as independent biomarkers of early diabetic
kidney disease. They also found a reduction, albeit not
statistically significant, of urinary NGAL with ACE in-
hibition. However, these biomarkers did not provide ad-
ditional prognostic information to that of known tradi-
tional markers in predicting the decline of kidney func-
tion in diabetic patients who have already developed
overt nephropathy .
Until more studies are available, periodic measure-
ments of microalbuminuria and serum creatinine (for es-
timated GFR) still remain the standard of care for screen-
ing of DN in the diabetic population.
4. Potential Future Therapeutic Agents for
Currently available measures to control DN are mostly
preventative. Recently, several emerging as well as po-
tential therapies for future have been proposed for treat-
ing DN based on both animal and human studies (Table
2). Emerging therapeutic agents include thiazolidinedi-
ones/PPAR-gamma agonists, angiotensin converting en-
zyme-2 (ACE-2), endothelin receptor blockers, advanced
glycation endproduct (AGE) inhibitors, and selective
vitamin D activation which have been suggested to have
a protective role in DN by causing a reduction or even
reversal of proteinuria (for review please see: ).
In this article, we will review some of the potential
future therapeutic agents for treating DN (Figure 1) as
Targets for potential therapy in future: 1 = Islet cell transplant; 2 =
Aldose reductase inhibitor; 3 = Protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitor; 4 =
Suldexide; 5 = Transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-β) inhibitor; 6 =
Connective tissue growth factor (CTGF) inhibitor; 7 = Bardoxolone me-
Figure 1. Pathogenesis of Diabetic Nephropathy (DN) and
potential future therapeutic measures for treatment and/or
reversal of DN.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJNeph
W. B. REEVES ET AL.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJNeph
Table 2. Therapeutic modalities in diabetic nephr opathy.
Current therapy Emerging therapy Potential therapy for future
1. Intensive glycemic control.
- Pharmacologic measures.
- Pancreas transplant.
2. Blood pressure control.
- Drugs affecting RAAS:
. ACE inhibitor
. Direct renin inhibitor
. Aldosterone antagonist
- Drugs not affecting RAAS:
. NDHP CCB
3. Lipid lowering agents.
4. Lifestyle modification.
1. Thiazolidinediones/PPAR-gamma agonists.
3. Endothelin receptor blockers.
4. AGE inhibitors.
5. Vitamin D activation.
1. Islet cell transplant.
2. Aldose reductase inhibitors.
3. Sulodexide (GAG).
4. Protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitors.
5. Connective tissue growth factor (CTGF) inhibitors.
6. Transforming growth factor beta (TGF-B) inhibitors.
4.1. Islet Cell Transplant
Several studies have shown that islet transplantation is
associated with improved diabetic control with a possi-
bility of protection against diabetic complications. War-
nok et al.  performed a prospective crossover, cohort
study of 42 patients with DM for more than 5 years and
with established diabetic complications such as retino-
pathy and mild nephropathy. All patients were initially
enrolled in group I and treated with intensive medical
therapy. Thirty one patients from group I subsequently
received islet cell transplants and crossed over to group II.
After almost 3 years of follow up, group II patients
showed better glycemic control (HBA1c 7.5% (I) vs.
6.6% (II); p < 0.01) and less progression on retinopathy.
However, both groups showed similar declines in kidney
function suggesting no additional benefit of islet cell
transplantation in preserving GFR (eGFR = –0.45 ml/min
(I) vs. –0.12 ml/min (II); p = 0.1). While islet cells are
typically obtained from a deceased organ donor, another
technique involving transplant of autologous islets has
been developed. The basic technique requires total pan-
createctomy, fragmentation of the pancreas followed by
collagenase digestion and then differential centrifugation.
The isolated islets are then re-implanted in the patient’s
liver via the portal vein . Webb et al.  studied 46
patients who received auto islet transplantation. After 10
years of follow up, the median serum creatinine increased
very little from 0.8 mg/dl to 0.87 mg/dl, suggesting a role
for auto islet cell transplantation in possible protection
against diabetic complications.
4.2. Aldose Reductase Inhibitors
Aldose reductase catalyzes the first and rate-limiting step
of the polyol pathway of glucose metabolism . Acti-
vation of the polyol pathway is implicated in diabetes
induced renal dysfunction via de novo synthesis of dia-
cylglycerol (DAG), activation of protein kinase C (PKC)
with increased production of TGF-β, extracellular matrix
proteins and prostaglandins. Increased aldose reductase
activity also results in depletion of NADPH, a decrease
in cellular levels of reduced glutathione, and increased
oxidative stress. The complex interaction between hyper-
glycemia-induced oxidative stress from aldose reductase
activation, increased formation of advanced glycation
endproducts (AGEs) and activation of vascular PKC iso-
forms ultimately result in microvascular diabetic com-
plications. Increased aldose reductase expression has
been shown in DMT2 patients . A number of studies
have shown a decrease in urinary albumin excretion in
animals treated with aldose reductase inhibitors [37-39].
For instance, the aldose reductase inhibitor, sorbinil, was
found to reduce albuminuria and glomerular basement
membrane thickening in STZ diabetic rats treated for five
months . These actions were attributed to a reduction
in the renal cortical activity of glucosyl-galactosyl-hy-
droxylysyl-glucohydrolase, an enzyme involved in the
catabolism of collagen disaccharide units .
Small clinical trials have assessed the efficacy of al-
dose reductase inhibitors in the treatment of DN in both
DMT1  and DMT2 . Both studies showed re-
duced urinary albumin excretion rate after aldose reduc-
tase inhibitor treatment for 6 months  or 5 years .
In contrast to these results, McAuliffe et al. reported that
aldose reductase inhibitors had no effect on proteinuria in
W. B. REEVES ET AL. 9
16 diabetic subjects treated for 12 months . Drugs
which block aldose reductase activity include spirohy-
dantoins (sorbinil), carboxylic acid derivatives (tolrestat,
epalrestat, ponalrestat) and flavonoids. Sorbinil and tol-
restat have been withdrawn from the worldwide market
because of severe toxicity (hepatotoxic). Taken together,
these studies of aldose reductase inhibitors have not
shown convincing evidence of benefit in the treatment of
4.3. Sulodexide (GAG)
Sulodexide is an oral formulation of a highly purified
mixture of glycosaminoglycans. It is composed of 80%
fast-moving heparin sulfate and 20% dermatan sulfate
and is the most extensively studied glycosaminoglycan
for diabetic patients. It bears strong chemical similarity
to heparin but does not have anticoagulation properties
when given orally . Sulodexide has emerged as a
potential treatment of DN as multiple studies have de-
monstrated reductions in urinary albumin excretion with
glycosaminoglycan therapy [44-47].
The precise physiology of the sulodexide-mediated
renoprotection in DN is not clear, but several mecha-
nisms have been proposed. Sulodexide has been shown
to block heparinase-1 activity [48,49], an enzyme that is
upregulated in hyperglycemia and can degrade heparin
sulfate molecules of the glomerular basement membrane.
As sulodexide is a mixture of glycosaminoglycans, it
may help in restoring the glycoproteins present in the
GBM and mesangium. Another mechanism involves re-
storing the anionic heparin sulfate charge on the GBM.
Finally, sulodexide may suppress high-glucose induced
overexpression of TGF-β1 that is responsible for en-
hanced expression of mesangial matrix and collagens
. In a study of the db/db mouse model of diabetes,
sulodexide was shown to reduce proteinuria significantly
in early stage kidney disease but not late kidney disease
(12 weeks and after) .
The efficacy of sulodexide in diabetes was also evalu-
ated in the DiNAS study . DiNAS was a randomized,
double blind and placebo controlled trial involving 223
patients with DMT1 or DMT2 and microalbuminuria or
macroalbuminuria. Patients were randomized to receive
sulodexide (50 to 200 mg daily) or placebo for 4 months.
After 4 months of therapy, albuminuria decreased by as
much as 74% compared with the placebo group. Four
months after drug discontinuation, albuminuria remained
69% lower in those randomized to 200 mg of sulodexide
compared with the placebo group. This sustained re-
sponse suggests that some anatomical or structural changes
had occurred with sulodexide treatment. Sulodexide was
well tolerated in that study. Another study showed a sig-
nificant reduction in albuminuria with long term use of
oral sulodexide at a moderate dose in patients with DN
. In this study, thirty patients (both DMT1 and
DMT2) treated with 50 mg per day of oral sulodexide for
12 months were compared with thirty matched diabetic
patients in the control group. The degree of albuminuria
was greatly reduced in patients treated with sulodexide at
the end of 12 months but was increased in the control
group (–260% and +29% respectively; p = 0.0001).
Another recent study included 149 patients with DMT2
and microalbuminuria  who were randomized to re-
ceive 200 or 400 mg of sulodexide versus placebo. The
primary endpoint at 6 months was a 50% reduction in
albuminuria or return to normoalbuminuria. This was
achieved in 33.3% of the sulodexide 200 mg group and
18.4% of the sulodexide 400 mg group as compared to
15.4% of the placebo group (p = 0.075 and 0.781 respec-
tively) . Based on the experience gained from these
smaller studies, two large multicenter double-blinded, ran-
domized placebo controlled trials were designed to estab-
lish the renoprotective potential of sulodexide. The re-
sults, unfortunately, were disappointing. The first study
was the Sulodexide Microalbuminuria (SUN-micro) Trial,
which examined the efficacy of sulodexide given over 26
weeks in 1000 patients with DMT2, hypertension and
microalbuminuria . The second study was the Sulo-
dexide Overt Nephropathy (SUN-macro) Trial which
aimed to examine the efficacy of sulodexide in 2240 pa-
tients with DMT2, hypertension and proteinuria ≥ 900
mg/24 h . Both SUN-micro and SUN-macro trials
used Sulodexide 200 mg daily vs. placebo in patients
being treated with maximum approved or tolerated dose
of ACE inhibitor or ARB in both arms. The primary
outcome of the SUN-micro Trial was the conversion to
normoalbuminuria and at least a 25% decrease in the
urinary albumin creatinine ratio (UACR) or at least a
50% reduction in UACR. The primary outcome of the
SUN-macro Trial was time to a composite end point of
doubling of serum creatinine or ESRD. However, the
SUN-micro trial failed to show a reduction of albumi-
nuria in DN. With the failure of the SUN-micro trial, the
SUN-macro trial was cancelled.
4.4. Protein Kinase C (PKC) Inhibitors
Activation of PKC is one of the key metabolic pathways
involved in the pathogenesis of the DN. PKC is a family
of at least 12 serine-threonine protein kinases that play an
important role in intracellular signal transduction .
Hyperglycemia-induced oxidative stress has been strongly
implicated in microvascular complications from diabetes.
High ambient blood glucose levels increase diacylgly-
cerol levels, advanced glycation end products, and en-
hance mitochondrial synthesis of reactive oxygen species,
thereby activating protein kinase C (PKC), particularly in
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJNeph
W. B. REEVES ET AL.
organs that are susceptible to developing diabetic micro-
and macro-vascular complications . Activated PKC
causes kidney damage through a number of mechanisms
including NADPH oxidase-dependent generation of oxi-
dants, signaling TGF-β to induce extracellular matrix
production and increased secretion of vasodilatory pro-
stanoids which contribute to glomerular hyperfiltration
[58,59]. Ruboxistaurin mesylate (RTX) (previously known
as LY333531) is a bisindolylmaleimide with a high de-
gree of specificity for inhibiting PKC-β1 and –β2 iso-
forms  which has been studied in animal models of
Ruboxistaurin was shown to have several positive im-
pacts on the pathogenesis of DN. It was able to normalize
glomerular hyperfiltration, reduce extracellular matrix pro-
tein production and TGF-β1, reduce mesangial expansion,
glomerulosclerosis and tubulointerstitial fibrosis and de-
A randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled, mul-
ticenter, pilot study was conducted to evaluate the effect
of LY333531 in type 2 DN patients . In this study,
123 patients with DN and macroalbuminuria were ran-
domized to either 32 mg daily of RTX or placebo for 1
year . Patients in both arms were continued on ACEIs
or ARBs during the trial. The primary endpoint was a
reduction in ACR. After one year, active treatment was
associated with a reduction in albuminuria and stabiliza-
tion of GFR whereas the placebo group experienced no
change in albuminuria and worsening of GFR. The re-
duction in albuminuria appeared as early as 1 month fol-
lowing treatment initiation. Although the study showed
beneficial effects of LY333531 in DN (reduction in al-
buminuria and prevention in loss of eGFR), this study
had some limitations. It was underpowered to detect any
significant differences in albumin-creatinine ratio and
eGFR. Another limitation of this study was its short du-
ration of follow-up that limited conclusions about safety
of RTX. Unfortunately, the PKC diabetic retinopathy
study 2 (PKC-DRS 2) seemed to show an increased fre-
quency of the adverse event of “diabetic nephropathy” in
ruboxistaurin-treated patients compared with placebo-
treated patients . Furthermore, Tuttle et al. analyzed
results from studies investigating the effects of ruboxis-
taurin on renal outcomes and found that the rate of kid-
ney outcomes was similar in ruboxistaurin-treated pa-
tients and individuals receiving placebo .
4.5. Connective Tissue Growth Factor (CTGF)
CTGF is a recently identified potent profibrotic peptide
that has been shown to play a role in the pathogenesis of
kidney diseases, micro- and macrovascular complications
of diabetes [67,68]. Several agents regulate CTGF ex-
pression such as TGF-β, high glucose and fibroblast
growth factor .
CTGF stimulates cell adhesion and migration, produc-
tion and deposition of extracellular matrix (ECM) pro-
teins, and angiogenesis [70,71]. Zhou et al. showed that
AGE-induced CTGF expression plays a critical role in
renal ECM accumulation leading to DN . CTGF has
been implicated in promoting tissue fibrosis in DN by
activating several intracellular signaling molecules in
human mesangial cells (HMC) including receptor tyro-
sine kinases (TrkA) and induction of transcription factor
TGF-B-inducible early gene . Multiple in vitro and
animal studies have demonstrated that inhibition of CTGF
prevents the production of key proteins that compose
scar  and prevents development of renal fibrosis [75,
76]. Several animal and human studies have been under-
taken to evaluate the role of CTGF inhibition using a
monoclonal antibody that targets CTGF (FG-3019). Fly-
vbjerg and colleagues investigated the effects of FG-3019
in obese mice with DMT2 . FG-3019 reduced urinary
albumin excretion, GBM thickening and normalized hy-
perfiltration in these mice. A similar study in rats showed
that FG-3019 reduced diabetic proteinuria .
Likewise, encouraging results were noted in human
studies examining FG-3019 as a therapeutic agent in pa-
tients with DN. Adler and colleagues studied 24 micro-
albuminuric subjects (21% with DMT1 and 79% with
DMT2) who received 3 or 10 mg/kg FG-3019 (total 4
doses 2 weeks apart) with one year follow up. The results
showed that FG-3019 was associated with a significant
reduction of urinary albumin/creatinine ratio (mean pre-
treatment value of 48 mg/g to a mean post-treatment value
of 20 mg/g, p = 0.027) without evidence for a dose-re-
sponse relationship . Similarly, Schwartz and col-
leagues showed that FG-3019 reduced microalbuminuria
in patients with diabetes . These preliminary results
suggest that CTGF does play a role in the pathogenesis
of DN, a role that needs further clarification. Inhibition
of CTGF is promising as a therapeutic target for patients
4.6. Transforming Growth Factor-Beta (TGF-β)
TGF-β1 is a powerful cytokine that plays several roles in
the kidney; including cell proliferation, migration, dif-
ferentiation, immunomodulation and ECM turnover re-
gulation . The role of TGF-β in diabetic nephropathy
has been examined in both animal and human studies.
Langham et al.  extracted RNA from 12 human renal
biopsies taken from participants in the Diabiopsies study,
a randomized controlled 2-year trial that reported a re-
duction in proteinuria and cortical matrix expansion in
DMT2 patients treated with perindopril (an ACE inhibi-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJNeph
W. B. REEVES ET AL. 11
tor) vs. placebo. The study showed a substantial diminu-
tion in TGF-β mRNA gene expression (mean 83% reduc-
tion, p < 0.05) in patients who had reduced proteinuria,
reflecting a potential role of TGF-β inhibition in the
treatment of DN. Therapeutic strategies were developed
to block the production/activity of the renal TGF-β1 sys-
tem to limit DN. Among these strategies are indirect ap-
proaches to decrease the TGF-β effects using renin-an-
giotensin inhibition, tight glycemic control, statin therapy
and/or tight blood pressure control. Other direct ap-
proaches decrease TGF-β effect using neutralizing anti-
TGF-β antibodies and antisense or using novel antifi-
brotic agents such as Pirfenidone .
Several animal studies have been performed to evalu-
ate the therapeutic role of TGF-β blockers in DN. Sharma
and colleagues administered TGF-β neutralizing anti-
bodies to diabetic rats and showed that TGF-β antibodies
prevented glomerular enlargement and suppressed the
expression of genes encoding ECM components .
Ziyadeh and colleagues further showed that administra-
tion of anti-TGF-β antibody could attenuate progressive
diabetic kidney disease in diabetic mice by preventing
pathological changes of glomerulosclerosis . Pirfeni-
done (PFD; 5-methyl-1-phenyl-2-(1H)-pyridone), a novel
antifibrotic agent, is a low molecular weight synthetic
molecule that inhibits TGF-β production and exerts anti-
fibrotic properties in cell culture and various animal mo-
dels of fibrosis [85,86]. Recently RamachandraRao and
colleagues evaluated the therapeutic efficacy of PFD in
db/db diabetic mice . DN developed in the db/db
mice as evidenced by albuminuria and mesangial matrix
expansion by 12 to 16 wk of age. PFD was then given to
the db/db mice from week 17 to week 21. Four weeks of
PFD treatment led to a significant reduction in the degree
of mesangial matrix expansion. They concluded that PFD
can promote resolution of mesangial matrix when ad-
ministered after the onset of nephropathy. They also
showed that PFD did not worsen renal blood flow, lower
BP, affect glycemic parameters, or cause hyperkalemia
Several clinical studies have confirmed that TGF-β is
increased in the kidneys of diabetic patients. Glomerular
expression of TGF-β is also increased in early [85,88]
and late stages [86,89] of DMT1 and DMT2 and corre-
lates with the degree of glycemic control in these patients
. These data were the grounds for a recent clinical
trial to evaluate the role of TGF-β inhibitors on the course
of DN. A double blind, placebo-controlled study with 77
subjects of DN were randomized to treatment with pla-
cebo, low dose (1200 mg daily) or high dose (2400 mg
daily) PFD for one year . Treatment with low dose,
but not high dose of PFD resulted in an improvement in
GFR with no change in albuminuria. The major side ef-
fects were gastrointestinal symptoms and fatigue. The
results of the study suggested that PFD could be a poten-
tial promising therapeutic agent in patients with DN. Ad-
ditional studies in larger numbers of patients, ideally with
histologic assessment of the kidneys, appear to be war-
ranted to support this benefit.
4.7. Anti-Inflammatory Agents—Bardoxolone
Recently, an orally available synthetic triterpenoid, Bar-
doxolone methyl, has shown promising results in DN.
Bardoxolone methyl exerts potent anti-oxidant and anti-
inflammatory activity via induction of the Nrf2 transcrip-
tion factor. A Phase 2 trial of bardoloxone methyl treat-
ment for 8 weeks in 20 patients with moderate-severe
CKD and DMT2 demonstrated improved renal function
as evidenced by increased eGFR paralleled by a signifi-
cant reduction in serum creatinine and BUN . A sub-
sequent trial examined the effect of bardoloxone methyl
(25 - 150 mg/d) administered for 52 weeks to 227 pa-
tients with moderate to severe CKD and DMT2 .
Bardoloxone methyl produced a significant increase in
GFR of 8 - 11 ml/min/1.73 m2. The improvement in GFR
was evident by 8 - 12 weeks of treatment and persisted
for the entire 52 week treatment period. Likewise, bar-
doloxone treatment reduced the proportion of patients
who experienced a 25% fall in GFR from 13% in the
placebo group to only 2% in treatment group. Although
hard outcomes, such as dialysis dependency and death,
were not evaluated, these results are very encouraging
and justify further study of bardoxolone methyl and re-
5. Summary and Conclusions
There is clear evidence that optimal glycemic control
[93-99] and blood pressure control [100-109] are of pa-
ramount importance in preventing progression of DN.
The renoprotective benefits of agents that block reni-
nangiotensin aldosterone system (RAAS) in preventing
progression of DN is well-established [110-121]. Non-
dihydropyrdine CCBs (diltiazem, verapamil), that do not
affect RAAS, have also been shown to reduce proteinuria
and slow progression of kidney disease in diabetics [122-
127]. Similarly, lipid lowering agents (such as statins)
have been shown to slow the rate of progression of DN
, but the data supporting this are scant. Even so, it is
important to understand that currently available strategies
are geared towards limiting or slowing the rate of pro-
gression of DN to ESRD. These modalities do not ac-
tually stop the progression of DN. In this modern era of
medical advancement, we are in dire need of novel
strategies that can halt or even reverse the disease pro-
While pancreas transplantation  is an effective
approach in preventing DN in patients with DMT1, islet
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJNeph
W. B. REEVES ET AL.
cell transplantation appears to be a reasonable alternative
to improve glycemic control but has questionable benefit
in terms of preserving GFR in patients with established
DN. Aldose-reductase is a rate-limiting enzyme in glu-
cose metabolism pathway, and its activation leads to in-
creased oxidative stress, formation of AGE products and
activation of protein kinase C, ultimately resulting in
micro-vascular complications such as DN. Although al-
dose-reductase inhibitors have been shown to reduce
albuminuria and prevent glomerular basement membrane
thickening in animal studies, their efficacy in humans has
been inconclusive. Sulodexide, an oral formulation of a
purified mixture of glycosaminoglycans reduced pro-
teinuria by uncertain mechanisms. It produced sustained
reductions in albuminuria in both animal and human
studies even after discontinuation of the drug, suggesting
the possibility for anatomical or structural changes with
long term protection against DN. Unfortunately, larger
multi-center studies (SUN-micro and SUN-macro trials)
failed to confirm these benefits. Protein kinase C inhibi-
tors (Ruboxistaurin) have shown promising results with
respect to improving glomerular hyperfiltration, reducing
mesangial expansion and reduction of albuminuria in
diabetic animal models as well as humans. They have
been associated with a reduction in albuminuria and pre-
vention of loss of GFR in a few randomized pilot studies,
although large scale prospective studies have yet to con-
firm their beneficial effects on renal outcomes. CTGF is
a potent profibrotic peptide that has been implicated in
extracellular matrix deposition and promotion of tissue
fibrosis. Therefore, CTGF inhibition is a promising the-
rapeutic target in patients with DN. FG-3019, a CTGF-
inhibitor, has been shown to reduce glomerular basement
membrane thickening and normalize hyperfiltration dia-
betic mice and reduce albuminuria in humans. Similarly,
pirfenidone is a TGF-β inhibitor that is recognized as a
novel anti-fibrotic agent. In humans, at a low treatment
dose, it was shown to improve GFR without improve-
ment in albuminuria. Similarly, the use of bardoxalone is
encouraging and justifies its further study.
In summary, these data indicate that there are several
promising therapeutic targets that could potentially be
utilized to treat patients with established DN. While cur-
rently available measures to control DN are largely pre-
ventative, there is hope that therapies capable of stopping,
or even reversing progression of DN will soon become
available. The current cost of ESRD care exceeds $10
billion per year, much of which is devoted to care of DN.
In addition, overt proteinuria in DN is a known inde-
pendent risk factor for cardiovascular events, including
death. Therefore, the potential ability to halt or reverse
DN with these candidate markers in future may offer
significant benefits in terms of minimizing cardiovascu-
lar morbidity and mortality and also reducing tremendous
health-care spending. However, additional human studies
are warranted to prove the effectiveness of these agents
in treating DN.
This work was supported by NIH Grant DK077444.
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