Diabetic Nephropathy

Article Author:
Ron Varghese
Article Editor:
Ishwarlal Jialal
11/15/2018 9:34:46 PM
PubMed Link:
Diabetic Nephropathy


Diabetic kidney disease (DKD) is the main cause of end-stage kidney disease (ESKD), in the developed countries including the United States.[1] It is considered a microvascular complication and occurs in both diabetes mellitus type 1 (T1DM) and diabetes mellitus type 2 (T2DM). Reliable tests for diagnosis and monitoring include urine albuminuria and the estimated GFR (eGFR). Optimizing glycemia and good blood pressure control are pivotal in halting the progression of DKD.[2]


Thirty percent to 40% of patients with diabetes mellitus (DM)develop diabetic nephropathy.[3]


While patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus may present with albuminuria at the time the diabetes is detected, diabetic nephropathy develops in type 1 diabetes 15 to 20 years later. This difference is mainly because the precise onset of type 2 diabetes is difficult to discern. Structural and functional changes occur in the kidney on account of diabetes and result in proteinuria, hypertension, and progressive reduction of kidney function, which is the hallmark of diabetic nephropathy.

Certain racial groups like African Americans, Native Americans, and Mexican Americans are at high risk of developing diabetic nephropathy. Studies have noted familial clustering, hinting that genetics plays a part in the risk of developing nephropathy.


Hyperglycemia leads to the production of reactive oxygen species and activation of pathways including protein kinase C, polyol, hexosamine, and advanced glycation end products (AGE). A significant feature is marked inflammation manifested by an increase in cytokines and chemokines including IL-6, MCP-1, TGF-beta (transforming growth factor- beta) and VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor), causing inflammation fibrosis and increased vascular permeability. A podocytopathy ensues resulting in albuminuria. The resulting systemic and intraglomerular hypertension results in proteinuria. Proteinuria causes epithelial-mesenchymal cell transformation leading to fibroblasts and chronic tubular injury.


Kimmelstiel-Wilson nodules, glomerular basement membrane thickening, and glomerular sclerosis, inflammation are the common pathologies seen in diabetic nephropathy.

History and Physical

Increasing duration of DM, poor glycemic control, and uncontrolled hypertension are strong risk factors for the development of diabetic nephropathy (DN). A family history of hypertension and cardiovascular events in first-degree relatives is also a strong risk factor for developing diabetic nephropathy. Obesity, smoking, and hyperlipidemia are risk factors for DN. This, along with family clustering, suggests genetic factors could also be at play. Several genes including polymorphisms in angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) and angiotensin receptor are being studied. Males are at higher risk for developing diabetic nephropathy.

Diabetic nephropathy is diagnosed by persistent albuminuria on 2 or more occasions, separated at least by 3 months on early morning urine samples. Persistent albuminuria is greater than 300 mg over 24 hours or greater than 200 micrograms per minute. Moderately increased albuminuria is when the urine albumin excretion rate is between 30 to 300 mg over 24 hours and is a marker of early DN. It is critical to exclude a urinary tract infection as the cause of the albuminuria by a urinalysis. 

Early in the course of the disease, patients are often asymptomatic and are diagnosed during screening with levels of 30 to 300 mg/G creatinine. Once nephropathy sets in, patients present with fatigue, foamy urine (urine protein greater than 3.5 g per day), and pedal edema due to hypoalbuminemia and nephrotic syndrome. They may also have associated peripheral vascular disease, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and diabetic retinopathy.


Proteinuria is the hallmark of diabetic nephropathy. The absence of retinopathy makes diabetic nephropathy less likely in T1DM.

The scenario is more difficult in T2DM than with T1DM. The exact time of onset of T2DM is unclear in most patients. History and physical exam play a crucial role in diagnosing diabetic nephropathy in T2DM.

Treatment / Management

Treatment of diabetic nephropathy targets 4 areas: cardiovascular risk reduction, glycemic control, control of blood pressure, and inhibition of the renin-angiotensin system (RAS).

Risk-factor modification, including tobacco cessation and optimal lipid control strategies, are crucial for cardiovascular risk reduction.

Studies have shown a significant reduction in risk of developing proteinuria and microalbuminuria with intensive diabetes control in T1DM.[4] These studies include DCCT (Diabetes Control and Complications Trial) and EDIC (Epidemiology of Diabetes Interventions and Complications study). The benefits of good glycemic control early in the onset of disease carried over even after a long time, despite glycemic control being similar in both groups on longer follow up. This effect is "metabolic memory," a term coined by DCCT/EDIC investigators.

In T2DM, UKPDS (United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study) showed that targeting a HbA1C of 7% led to lower risk of microvascular complications including nephropathy.[5] However, blood pressure (BP) control also led to a decrease in cardiovascular mortality.

Studies have shown the benefit of ARBs (angiotensin receptor blockers) in delaying the progression of kidney disease.[6][7] These include studies like RENAAL (Reduction of Endpoints in NIDDM with the Angiotensin II Antagonist Losartan Study) and IDNT (Irbesartan Diabetes Nephropathy Trial), which also showed that the BP achieved, better-predicted kidney outcome rather than BP at entry, emphasizing the need for BP control. UKPDS showed the benefit of BP control on any DM-related complication such as death, adverse cardiovascular events, and the composite of microvascular events. However aggressive control of systolic BP to less than 120 mm Hg, as opposed to standard therapy (less than 140 mm Hg systolic), found no difference in cardiovascular outcome or end-stage renal disease. The Eighth Joint National Committee (JNC 8) guidelines recommend a goal BP less than 140/90 mm Hg for most patients with T2DM and diabetic nephropathy, but with individualization.[8] Recent diabetic society guidelines suggest goals of 130/80 for people with diabetes.

While RAS blockade is crucial to prevent the development of diabetic nephropathy, multiple studies show that early therapy in patients with T1DM is ineffective in preventing the development of microalbuminuria. However, studies including ROADMAP (Randomized Olmesartan and Diabetes Microalbuminuria Prevention) have shown that RAS blockade can prevent development of microalbuminuria in T2DM.[9]

Studies like IRMA2 (Irbesartan in Microalbuminuria, Type 2 Diabetic Nephropathy Trial) have shown the benefit of ARB in preventing proteinuria in patients with microalbuminuria.[10] Studies in patients with T1DM and overt proteinuria have also shown that ACE inhibitors slow the progress of diabetic nephropathy. The IDNT and RENAAL studies have shown similar benefit in T2DM patients. These studies provide clear evidence of the benefit of RAS-blocking medication on slowing progression of diabetic nephropathy, independent of their effect on BP. However, the use of more than one RAS-blocking agents resulted in multiple adverse outcomes including acute renal failure and has fallen out of favor.

Newer drugs like a third-generation mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist, finerenone, has shown albuminuria reduction in diabetic nephropathy at 90 days, on patients already on ARB.[11] The EMPAREG and CANVAS studies showed that SGLT2 (sodium glucose co-transporter 2) inhibitors that prevent reabsorption of glucose via the renal tubules reduced cardiovascular mortality.[12] In these cardiovascular outcome trials, the SGLT2 inhibitors had positive effects on kidney outcomes, namely albuminuria reduction and a reduction in the occurrence of a composite renal outcome. However, since these are secondary outcomes of trials designed to test cardiovascular benefit, many studies are now underway to test the actual potential of this group of drugs to prevent progression of diabetic nephropathy.

Toxicity and Side Effect Management

Effect of CKD on Diabetes Drugs

The kidneys play a crucial role in clearing insulin from the body.  When the kidney fails, insulin remains for longer periods in the body, and this warrants dose reduction of insulin to prevent hypoglycemia. This principle also is true for most oral antidiabetic medications that are cleared from the kidney.

Metformin is contraindicated in patients with eGFR less than 30 mL/min/1.73 m2, due to the likelihood of lactic acidosis. With most oral drugs the physician needs to be cautious when the eGFR is less than 45 mL per minute and especially below 30 mL per minute.

Patients with diabetic nephropathy are at risk of developing acute kidney injury (AKI) and, one must exercise extreme caution with the use of nephrotoxic medications like NSAID, intravenous contrast, among others.


When the eGFR is below 45 mL per minute, and the patient has albuminuria greater than 300 mg/G creatinine a nephrology consult is prudent to establish a baseline for future renal replacement therapy.

Deterrence and Patient Education

Protein intake should be around 0.8 g per kilogram body weight.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Interdisciplinary clinical teams have been crucial in reducing cardiovascular risk factors, glycemic control and decreased risk of complications, across multiple countries [13]. The current recommendation is that the patient also is included as a member of this interprofessional treatment team for optimal outcomes. The nurse should educate the patient on the importance of glucose control and a healthy diet, whereas the pharmacist should educate the patient on medication compliance. Further, these patients should be taught how to monitor and treat their blood glucose levels at home. Studies show that patients who remain compliant with home monitoring of blood glucose tend to have a delay in renal dysfunction.[14]