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Renal Handling of Urea

Renal Handling of Urate

Urate, an anion that is the base form of uric acid, provides a fascinating example of the renal handling of organic anions that is particularly important for clinical medicine and is illustrative of renal pathology. An increase in the plasma concentration of urate can cause gout and is thought to be involved in some forms of heart disease and renal disease; therefore, its removal from the blood is important. However, instead of excreting all the urate it can, the kidneys actually reabsorb most of the filtered urate. Urate is freely filterable. Almost all the filtered rate is reabsorbed early in the proximal tubule, primarily via antiporters (URAT1) that exchange urate for another organic anion. Further on the proximal tubule urate undergoes active tubular secretion. Then, in the straight portion, some of the urate is once again reabsorbed. Because the total rate of reabsorption is normally much greater than the rate of secretion, only a small fraction of the filtered load is excreted.

Although urate reabsorption is greater than secretion, the secretory process is controlled to maintain relative constancy of plasma urate. In other words, if plasma urate begins to increase because of increased urate production, the active proximal secretion of urate is stimulated, thereby increasing urate excretion.

Given these mechanisms of renal urate handling, the reader should be able to deduce the 3 ways by which altered renal function can lead to decreased urate excretion and hence increased plasma urate, as in gout: 1) decreased filtration of urate secondary to decreased GFR, 2) excessive reabsorption of urate, and 3) diminished secretion of urate.

Urate, and some other organic solutes, although more membrane permeable in the neutral form, are less soluble in aqueous solution and tend to precipitate. The combination of excess plasma urate and low urinary pH, which converts urate to the neutral uric acid, often leads to the formation of uric acid kidney stones.

Renal Handling of Urea

Urea is a very special substance for the kidney. It is an end product of protein metabolism, waste to be excreted, and also an important component for the regulation of water excretion. Urea differs from all the other organic solutes in several significant ways. 1) There are no membrane transport mechanisms in the proximal tubule; instead, it easily permeates the tight junctions of the proximal tubule where it is reabsorbed paracellularly. 2) Tubular elements beyond the proximal tubule express urea transporters and handle urea in a complex, regulated manner.

Urea is derived from proteins, which form much of the functional and structural substance of body tissues. Proteins are also a source of metabolic fuel. Dietary protein is first digested into its constituent amino acids. These are then used as building blocks for tissue protein, converted to fat or oxidized immediately. During fasting, the body breaks down proteins into amino acids that are used as fuel, in essence consuming itself. The metabolism of amino acids yields a nitrogen moiety (ammonium) and a carbohydrate moiety. The carbohydrate goes on to further metabolic processing, but the ammonium cannot be further oxidized and is a waste product. Ammonium per se is rather toxic to most tissues and the liver immediately converts most ammonium to urea and a smaller, but crucial amount to glutamine. While normal levels of urea are not toxic, the large amounts produced on a daily basis, particularly on a high protein diet, represent a large osmotic load that must be excreted. Whether a person is well fed or fasting, urea production proceeds continuously and constitutes about half of the usual solute content of urine.

The normal level of urea in the blood is quite variable, reflecting variations in both protein intake and renal handling of urea. Over days to weeks, renal urea excretion must match hepatic production; otherwise plasma levels would increase into the pathological range producing a condition called uremia. On a short-term basis (hours to days), urea excretion rate may not exactly match production rate because urea excretion is also regulated for purposes other than keeping a stable plasma level.

The gist of the renal handling of urea is the following: it is freely filtered. About half is reabsorbed passively in the proximal tubule. Then an amount equal to that reabsorbed is secreted back into the loop of Henle. Finally, about half is reabsorbed a second time in the medullary collecting duct. The net result is that about half the filtered load is excreted.

pH Dependence of Passive Reabsorption or Secretion

Many of the organic solutes handled by the kidney are weak acids or bases and exist in both, neutral and ionized forms. The state of ionization affects both the aqueous solubility and membrane permeability of the substance. Neutral solutes are more permeable than ionized solutes. As water is reabsorbed from the tubule, any substance remaining in the tubule becomes progressively more concentrated. And the luminal pH may change substantially during flow through the tubules. Therefore, both the progressive concentration of organic solutes and change in pH strongly influence the degree to which they are reabsorbed by passive diffusion through regions of tubule beyond the proximal tubule.

At low pH weak acids are predominantly neutral, while at high pH they dissociate into an anion and a proton. Imagine the case in which the tubular fluid becomes acidified relative to the plasma, which it does on a typical Western diet. For a weak acid in the tubular fluid, acidification converts much of the acid to the neutral form and therefore, increases its permeability. This favors diffusion out of the lumen (reabsorption). Highly acidic urine tends to increase passive reabsorption of weak acids (and promote less excretion). For many weak bases, the pH dependence is just opposite. At low pH they are protonated cations. As the urine becomes acidified, more is converted to the impermeable charged form and is trapped in the lumen. Less is reabsorbed passively, and more is excreted.

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