Background: Mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) inhibitors are increasingly used as immunosuppressive agents in kidney transplantation. In the experimental setting it has been shown that mTOR inhibitors promote autophagy, but the concept that this might also occur in transplant patients has not been addressed.
Objectives: This study was designed to investigate the association between mTOR inhibition and autophagy in renal transplants under routine clinical conditions.
Materials and Methods: Protocol transplant biopsies of patients receiving sirolimus were compared to biopsies of patients treated without mTOR inhibitor. Electron microscopy was used for quantitative stereological analysis of autophagosomal volume fractions. Ultrastructural analysis was focused on podocytes to avoid cell type bias. Autophagy-related gene products were profiled by QPCR from laser assisted microdissected glomeruli and by immunohistochemistry for semiquantitative evaluation.
Results: By electron microscopy, we observed a significant > 50% increase in podocytic autophagosomal volume fractions in patients treated with sirolimus. Evaluation of biopsy material from the same patients using transcriptional profiling of laser capture microdissected glomeruli revealed no differences in autophagy-related gene expressions. Immunohistochemical evaluation of autophagic degradation product p62 was also unaltered whereas a significant increase was observed in podocytic LC3 positivity in biopsies of sirolimus treated patients.
Conclusions: These results indicate an association of sirolimus treatment and autophagosome formation in transplant patients. However, they might reflect autophagosomal buildup rather than increased autophagic flux. Further research is needed to investigate the potential functional consequences in short- and long-term outcome of patients treated with mTOR inhibitors.