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Mast cells in the kidney: what are they doing there?

Dr Ian Roberts
Renal Pathologist, Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals and University of Oxford, UK

Mast cells were first described by Paul Ehrlich in 1879. They were initially identified and sub-typed in tissue sections according to the dye-binding characteristics of their proteoglycan-rich granules1,2 (figure 1).

Figure 1. Mast cells in the renal cortex stained with toluidine blue at pH 0.5, showing cytoplasmic granules

In rodents, two distinct types of mast cells are present; mucosal and connective tissue mast cells, which differ in their staining characteristics, granule contents and functions. In humans, however, no such distinct mast cell populations can be defined by traditional histochemistry. The staining of mast cell granules with dyes such as toluidine blue shows variable sensitivity to tissue fixation and most mast cells fail to stain in formalin-fixed tissues. Up to 75% of renal mast cells are formalin-sensitive and cannot be detected by traditional histochemical stains in routine paraffin sections (table 1).

Table 1
Numbers of mast cells detected by toluidine blue and mast cell tryptase (reference 7)


Mast cells/mm2 of cortex (median and range)

p value


Toluidine blue (pH 1.0)

Mast cell tryptase


Normal kidney

0.2 (0-0.8)

1.4 (0.3-3.6)


Chronic allograft rejection

12.5 (6.9-14.3)

41.3 (25.3-52.3)


Chronic pyelonephritis

7 (1.6-12)

37.8 (23.5-47.1)


More recently, immunohistochemistry (IH) for mast cell-specific enzymes tryptase and chymase has been used as a more reliable tool to identify and type human mast cells. The different functional roles of the three subsets so defined in humans (tryptase only positive, chymase only positive, tryptase and chymase positive) is currently unknown.

Mast cell precursors originate from the bone marrow and circulate within peripheral blood, although at this stage they lack granules and are thus difficult to identify3, 4; the mature tissue mast cells are widespread, being present in virtually every organ in the body. The normal kidney, however, contains very few mast cells, which are mainly localised to the connective tissue around vascular bundles (figures 2 & 3). In contrast, mast cells can be seen to infiltrate the kidney in large numbers in many renal diseases (figure 4). An association between mast cells and renal disease was first noted by Pavone-Macaluso in 19605, and subsequently by Colvin and co-workers in 19746. After these reports, the link between mast cells and renal pathology was largely forgotten for over 20 years. In recent years, however, there has been renewed interest in the potential role of mast cells in the pathogenesis of renal failure and a number of reports have documented their presence in both primary renal disease and renal allografts.

Figure 2.&3. Mast cells in the normal kidney: absent from the parenchyma, other than around vascular bundles

Figure 3

Figure 4. Mast cells in chronic renal failure, IH for mast cell tryptase

Mast cells are seen predominantly within the interstitium (figure 5); they also infiltrate tubules (figure 6), as described by Colvin. Epithelium of infiltrated tubules often shows tryptase positivity. Mast cells are not seen in normal arteries but are present in small numbers in the fibrotic intima of intra-renal arteries in chronic allograft vasculopathy (figure 7). They are very rarely seen in glomeruli. IH for tryptase commonly reveals evidence of mast cell degranulation, with tryptase positivity seen within the extracellular matrix around mast cells (figure 8). Mast cell infiltration is associated with interstitial fibrosis of multiple aetiologies7. Increased numbers are observed in diabetic nephropathy8, chronic glomerulonephritis7, 9, 10, 11 and chronic pyelonephritis7. In IgA nephropathy, there is a close correlation between the number of renal mast cells and extent of interstitial fibrosis (figure 9).

Figure 5. Mast cells in the interstitium in IgA nephropathy

Figure 6. Mast cells infiltrating a tubule, showing epithelial staining for tryptase

Figure 7. Mast cell in the fibrotic intima of an artery in chronic vascular rejection

Figure 8. Mast cell degranulation with staining of surrounding matrix for tryptase

Figure 9. Correlation of mast cell infiltration and interstitial fibrosis in IgA nephropathy

In renal allografts, mast cells are significantly increased in chronic allograft nephropathy, whether this is immune origin (chronic rejection) or due to chronic ciclosporin toxicity7, 12 (table 2).

Table 2
Numbers of mast cells in renal allograft biopsies (reference 7)

Biopsy diagnosis

Mast cells/mm2 of cortex

Median (interquartile range)

p value (Mann-Whitney U)

Acute rejection, subsequently progressing to chronic

3.0 (1.9-5.1)


Acute rejection, not progressing to chronic

2.7 (1.0-5.3)

acute vs chronic rejection <0.0001

Chronic rejection

27.1 (20.7-29.8)


Acute CsA toxicity

2.0 (1.3-2.5)

acute vs chronic CsA toxicity <0.0001

Chronic CsA toxicity

10.6 (7.2-21.3)


At what stage of renal disease do mast cells appear and what are the triggers and mechanisms of recruitment? To answer the first question requires the longitudinal study of patients suffering an initial acute inflammatory insult, progressing later to fibrosis. Such evidence comes from renal transplantation. In patients biopsied during acute rejection and later, during chronic rejection, it is clear that mast cell infiltration is a late event, ie mast cells are associated with the development of fibrosis, not the initial immune response (table 2)7. Interaction between the growth factor receptor c-kit on the surface of mast cells and its ligand, stem cell factor (SCF), bound to fibroblasts appears to be central to recruitment and leads to mast cell chemotaxis, adhesion and activation. Interestingly, serum levels of SCF increase in patients with chronic renal disease13 and renal expression of SCF correlates with mast cell infiltration in many primary and secondary glomerular diseases14. Many cytokines and other molecules, including PDGF, bFGF, VEGF, TNF and complement components, are chemotactic for mast cells but the most potent of all is TGF1, a cytokine that has been implicated in the development of renal fibrosis in both animal models and several human renal diseases. Increased expression of TGF1 has been demonstrated to be associated with mast cell infiltration in an animal model of progressive renal disease15.

So what is the function of renal mast cells, and what is their link to renal pathophysiology? Evidence from diseases of organs other than the kidney indicates that the answer to this question may not be straightforward. Mast cells are best known for their role in allergic conditions, in which IgE-mediated degranulation results in the release of vasoactive amines. There is evidence that the production of vasoactive molecules, including histamine, leukotrienes and prostaglandins, by renal mast cells may modulate intra-renal haemodynamics. In addition, mast cells store, or are capable of synthesising, a wide variety of pro-inflammatory cytokines and enzymes and in view of the varied activity of mast cell products and their potential biological functions these cells have been implicated in many pathological situations. There is evidence that mast cells play a role in acute inflammation16, modulation of cellular immune responses17, angiogenesis18, turnover of connective tissue and fibrosis. It is the potential fibrogenic properties of mast cells that are of most interest in terms of their association with renal disease.

Mast cells may potentiate fibrosis in a number of ways (recently reviewed by Gruber19). They are capable of synthesising several fibrogenic cytokines, including bFGF20 and TGF121. Mast cell proteases may also contribute to matrix remodelling and fibrosis; in vitro studies have demonstrated activation of matrix metalloproteinases by mast cell degranulation22. Mast cell tryptase, the major component of the cytoplasmic granules, can stimulate collagen synthesis by fibroblasts23 and induce chemotaxis24, possibly through interaction with protease-activated receptors. Tryptase in combination with heparin stimulates proliferation of renal interstitial fibroblasts25. Human mast cell chymase is effective at releasing latent TGF1 from extracellular matrix but does not appear to convert TGF1 to the active 25kDa species26. Histamine and heparin may also modulate fibroblast proliferation and stimulate collagen synthesis in vitro27, 28.

There is both in vitro and in vivo evidence that mast cells may play an important role in the development of pathological fibrosis. Co-culture of mast cells and fibroblasts results in fibroblastic proliferation that is modulated by direct cell-cell contact29. Mast cell granules are phagocytosed by fibroblasts in co-culture30 and ultrastructural studies have confirmed an intimate association between mast cells and fibroblasts in vivo (figure 10).

Figure 10. Electron microscopy of a renal mast cell, showing close contact with interstitial fibroblasts

In addition to chronic renal disease, mast cells have been implicated in pathological fibrosis in a number of conditions including hypertrophic scars31, chronic atopic dermatitis32, hepatic cirrhosis33, fibrosing alveolitis34, 35 and cardiac fibrosis36. Studies using mast cell deficient mice (W/Wv) have demonstrated that these animals show less collagen deposition than their normal littermates in response to fibrogenic triggers, such as bleomycin-induced lung fibrosis37. Furthermore, cross breading of W/Wv mice with tight skin (TSK) mice, a strain that is genetically predisposed to developing dermal sclerosis, leads to a reduction in the level of fibrosis38.

As yet, however, there is no data available using this strain of mice in a model of renal fibrosis. Renal mast cells should not be assumed to have pro-fibrotic activity without more direct in vivo evidence. In fact a recent study employing the PAN nephrosis model of chronic renal injury in a mast cell deficient rat strain (Ws/Ws) suggests that mast cells may have a protective rather than deleterious role in renal fibrosis39. Further studies are urgently required to clarify the function of renal mast cells. Mast cell stabilising agents have been demonstrated to be of benefit in inhibiting cutaneous fibrosis in an animal model40. It is possible that these compounds may provide a new approach to anti-fibrotic therapy in the management of chronic renal disease.


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