Serum uric acid levels in humans are influenced by diet, cellular breakdown, and renal elimination, and correlate with blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, gout, and cardiovascular disease. Recent genome-wide association scans have found common genetic variants of SLC2A9 to be associated with increased serum urate level and gout. The SLC2A9 gene encodes a facilitative glucose transporter, and it has two splice variants that are highly expressed in the proximal nephron, a key site for urate handling in the kidney. We investigated whether SLC2A9 is a functional urate transporter that contributes to the longstanding association between urate and blood pressure in man.
Methods and Findings
We expressed both SLC2A9 splice variants in Xenopus laevis oocytes and found both isoforms mediate rapid urate fluxes at concentration ranges similar to physiological serum levels (200–500 μM). Because SLC2A9 is a known facilitative glucose transporter, we also tested whether glucose or fructose influenced urate transport. We found that urate is transported by SLC2A9 at rates 45- to 60-fold faster than glucose, and demonstrated that SLC2A9-mediated urate transport is facilitated by glucose and, to a lesser extent, fructose. In addition, transport is inhibited by the uricosuric benzbromarone in a dose-dependent manner (Ki = 27 μM). Furthermore, we found urate uptake was at least 2-fold greater in human embryonic kidney (HEK) cells overexpressing SLC2A9 splice variants than nontransfected kidney cells. To confirm that our findings were due to SLC2A9, and not another urate transporter, we showed that urate transport was diminished by SLC2A9-targeted siRNA in a second mammalian cell line. In a cohort of men we showed that genetic variants of SLC2A9 are associated with reduced urinary urate clearance, which fits with common variation at SLC2A9 leading to increased serum urate. We found no evidence of association with hypertension (odds ratio 0.98, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.9 to 1.05, p > 0.33) by meta-analysis of an SLC2A9 variant in six case–control studies including 11,897 participants. In a separate meta-analysis of four population studies including 11,629 participants we found no association of SLC2A9 with systolic (effect size −0.12 mm Hg, 95% CI −0.68 to 0.43, p = 0.664) or diastolic blood pressure (effect size −0.03 mm Hg, 95% CI −0.39 to 0.31, p = 0.82).
This study provides evidence that SLC2A9 splice variants act as high-capacity urate transporters and is one of the first functional characterisations of findings from genome-wide association scans. We did not find an association of the SLC2A9 gene with blood pressure in this study. Our findings suggest potential pathogenic mechanisms that could offer a new drug target for gout.
Blood is continually pumped around the human body to deliver the chemicals needed to keep the body's cells alive and to take cellular waste products to the kidneys where they are filtered out of the blood and excreted in the urine. In healthy people, the levels of nutrients and waste products in serum (the liquid part of blood) fall within “normal” ranges but in ill people these levels can be very different. For example, serum uric acid (urate) levels are usually increased in people with gout. In this arthritic condition, uric acid crystallizes in the joints (often those in the big toe) and causes swelling and intense pain. Increased serum urate levels, which are also associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, and several other important conditions, can be caused by eating food that is rich in chemicals called purines (for example, liver, dried beans, and port). The body also converts its own purines into uric acid so genetic variations in the enzymes involved in purine breakdown can alter serum urate levels, as can variations in the rate of urate removal from the body by the kidneys. Urinary urate excretion is controlled by urate transporters, proteins that carry urate into and out of the kidney cells. Uricosuric drugs, which are used to treat gout, reduce serum urate levels by inhibiting a urate transporter that reabsorbs urate from urine.
Why Was This Study Done?
Several urate transporters have already been identified but recently, using an approach called genome-wide association scanning, scientists found that some genetic variants of a human gene called SLC2A9 are more common in people with high serum urate levels than in people with normal levels. SLC2A9 encodes a glucose transporter (a protein that helps to move the sugar glucose through cell membranes) and is highly expressed in the kidney's main urate handling site. Given these facts, could SLC2A9 (the protein made from SLC2A9) be a urate transporter as well as a glucose transporter? In this study, the researchers investigate this possibility and also ask whether genetic variations in SLC2A9 might be responsible for the association between serum urate levels and high blood pressure.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers first expressed SLC2A9 in frog eggs, a type of cell that does not have its own urate transporter. They found that urate rapidly moved into eggs expressing SLC2A9 but not into control eggs, that SLC2A9 transported urate about 50 times faster than glucose, and that glucose stimulated SLC2A9-mediated urate transport. Similarly, overexpression of SLC2A9 in human embryonic kidney cells more than doubled their urate uptake. Conversely, when the researchers used a technique called RNA interference to reduce the expression of mouse SLC2A9 in mouse cells that normally makes this protein, urate transport was reduced. Next, the researchers looked at two small parts of SLC2A9 that vary between individuals (so-called single polynucleotide polymorphisms) in nearly 900 men who had had their serum urate levels and urinary urate excretion rates measured. They found that certain genetic variations at these two sites were associated with increased serum urate levels and decreased urinary urate excretion. Finally, the researchers used a statistical technique called meta-analysis to look for an association between one of the SLC2A9 gene variants and blood pressure. In two separate meta-analyses that together involved more than 20, 000 participants in several studies, there was no association between this gene variant and blood pressure.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Overall, these findings indicate that SLCA9 is a high capacity urate transporter and suggest that this protein plays an important part in controlling serum urate levels. They provide confirmation that common genetic variants in SLC2A9 affect serum urate levels to a marked degree, although they do not show exactly which genetic variant is responsible for increasing serum urate levels. They also provide important new insights into how the kidneys normally handle urate and suggest ways in which this essential process may sometimes go wrong. Thus, these findings could eventually lead to new treatments for gout and possibly for other diseases that are associated with increased serum urate levels.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050197.
The UK National Health Service Direct health encyclopedia provides detailed information for patients about gout
MedlinePlus provides links to many sources of information about gout (in English and Spanish), including “What is gout?”, an easy-to-read guide from the US National Institutes of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
Wikipedia also has pages on gout, uric acid, and SCL2A9 (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The Arthritis Research Campaign also has information on gout
Mark Caulfield and colleagues show that theSLC2A9 gene, which encodes a facilitative glucose transporter, is also a high-capacity urate transporter.