Kidney-derived c-kit+ cells exhibit progenitor/stem cell properties and can regenerate epithelial tubular cells following ischemia-reperfusion injury in rats. We therefore investigated whether c-kit+ progenitor/stem cells contribute to podocyte repair in a rat model of acute proteinuria induced by puromycin aminonucleoside (PAN), the experimental prototype of human minimal change disease and early stages of focal and segmental glomerulosclerosis. We found that c-kit+ progenitor/stem cells accelerated kidney recovery by improving foot process effacement (foot process width was lower in c-kit group vs saline treated animals, P = 0.03). In particular, these cells engrafted in small quantity into tubules, vessels, and glomeruli, where they occasionally differentiated into podocyte-like cells. This effect was related to an up regulation of α-Actinin-4 and mTORC2-Rictor pathway. Activation of autophagy by c-kit+ progenitor/stem cells also contributed to kidney regeneration and intracellular homeostasis (autophagosomes and autophagolysosomes number and LC3A/B-I and LC3A/B-II expression were higher in the c-kit group vs saline treated animals, P = 0.0031 and P = 0.0009, respectively). Taken together, our findings suggest that kidney-derived c-kit+ progenitor/stem cells exert reparative effects on glomerular disease processes through paracrine effects, to a lesser extent differentiation into podocyte-like cells and contribution to maintenance of podocyte cytoskeleton after injury. These findings have clinical implications for cell therapy of glomerular pathobiology.
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