Idiopathic NS (nephrotic syndrome) is characterized by massive proteinuria, due to a leak in the glomerular barrier to proteins. Genetic defects that affect the function and the composition of the glomerular capillary wall, in particular of the visceral epithelial cells, have recently been recognized as the cause of familial forms of NS. MCNS (minimal change NS) and FSGS (focal and segmental glomerulosclerosis) are common non-familial forms of NS in which the causative defect has not yet been identified. Several studies have shown that non-familial NS is associated with the presence of circulating permeability factors and with complex disturbances in the immune system. Thus far, there is no direct evidence that these factors directly alter glomerular permeability to proteins, and some of these factors may be a consequence, rather than a cause, of NS. In this review, we will briefly highlight the mechanisms that underlie proteinuria in general and focus on the immunological disturbances associated with idiopathic NS, with attention to potential mechanisms whereby the immune system may directly act on the glomerular capillary filter.

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