1. It has been proposed that raised erythrocyte sodium-lithium countertransport activity in type 1 diabetic patients is associated with an increased risk of developing diabetic nephropathy. Diabetic patients with established nephropathy would therefore be expected to have high activity.
2. Standard sodium-lithium countertransport activity, sodium affinity (Km) and maximum velocity (Vmax.) were measured in type 1 diabetic patients at different stages of diabetic nephropathy and in appropriately matched uncomplicated diabetic patients and normal control subjects.
3. A small proportion (15%) of patients with nephropathy had standard sodium-lithium countertransport activity higher than the control range. However, mean standard sodium-lithium countertransport activity in the diabetic patients with nephropathy [mean ± sem, 0.26 + 0.12 mmol of Li+ h−1 (l of cells)−1] was not significantly higher than in the uncomplicated diabetic patients [0.27 ± 0.03 mmol of Li+ h−1 (1 of cells)−1] or in the normal control subjects [0.25 ± 0.02 mmol of Li+ h−1 (l of cells)−1].
4. There were marked changes in the kinetic characteristics of the sodium-lithium countertransport in the diabetic patients with nephropathy so that there were decreases in both Km and Vmax.
5. These kinetic changes could not be attributed to an effect of either renal failure per se or the duration of diabetes.
6. The characteristic kinetic changes in sodium-lithium countertransport may indicate underlying alterations in membrane function with the onset of nephropathy in type 1 diabetes.