1. It has been suggested that tubular damage may precede gomerular damage at the onset of diabetic nephropathy. This may be reflected by increased urinary excretion of low-molecular-mass proteins, such as retinol-binding protein.

2. We have measured the urinary excretion rate of retinol-binding protein overnight, during orthostasis and during a hyperinsulinaemic euglycaemic clamp (blood glucose concentration 7.0 mmol/l) with stable diuresis in 34 normotensive, normoalbuminuric insulin-dependent diabetic patients and in 10 normal control subjects. Normal control subjects were not clamped. A further four normoalbuminuric insulin-dependent diabetic patients were rendered euglycaemic without a water load.

3. Overnight retinol-binding protein excretion rate was 58 (16-157) [median(range)] ng/min in patients with insulin-dependent diabetes and 32 (15-72) ng/min in control subjects (P < 0.01). The excretion rate did not change during orthostasis [patients with insulin-dependent diabetes, 67 (3-173) ng/min; control subjects, 23 (5-78) ng/min]. During the euglycaemic clamp retinol-binding protein excretion rate increased to 383 (78-4897) ng/min in patients with insulin-dependent diabetes (P < 0.01). An average increment in retinol-binding protein excretion rate of greater than 4000% was noted after acute euglycaemia in those patients with insulin-dependent diabetes who were not water-loaded.

4. In insulin-dependent diabetes, both overnight and orthostatic retinal-binding protein excretion was not correlated with fasting blood glucose concentration, HbA1, fructosamine or duration of diabetes. The absolute and incremental excretion rates of retinol-binding protein during the clamp were, however, correlated with both fasting blood glucose concentration and glucose excretion rate (rs = 0.41-0.48, P < 0.01).

5. The study demonstrates that retinol-binding protein excretion is increased in insulin-dependent diabetes in the absence of microalbuminuria and that this increase in retinol-binding protein excretion is particularly pronounced after acute euglycaemia. Acute tubular dysfunction related to acute changes in glucose control appears to be the most likely explanation, but established tubular damage could also be implicated. Postural variation in retinol-binding protein excretion was not detected.

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