The role of macrophages in the pathogenesis of lupus nephritis, in particular their differentiation to a certain subtype (e.g., M1- or M2-like) modulating the inflammatory reaction, is unknown. Here we investigated whether the differentiation in M1- or M2-like macrophages depends on the stage of lupus nephritis and whether this correlates with clinical parameters.
Using immunohistochemical analysis we analyzed renal biopsies from 68 patients with lupus nephritis (ISN/RPS classes II–V) for infiltration with M1-like (iNOS+/CD68+), M2a-like (CD206+/CD68+), M2c-like macrophages (CD163+/CD68+), and FoxP3+ regulatory T-cells. In addition, clinical parameters at the time of renal biopsy, i.e., blood pressure, proteinuria and serum urea were correlated with the macrophage infiltration using the Spearman test.
The mean number of CD68+ macrophages was related to the diagnosed ISN/RPS class, showing the highest macrophage infiltration in biopsies with diffuse class IV and the lowest number in ISN/RPS class V. In all ISN/RPS classes we detected more M2c-like CD163+/CD68+ than M2a-like CD206+/CD68+ cells, while M1-macrophages played only a minor role. Cluster analysis using macrophage subtype numbers in different renal compartments revealed three main clusters showing cluster 1 dominated by class V. Clusters 2 and 3 were dominated by lupus class IV indicating that this class can be further differentiated by its macrophage population. The number of tubulointerstitial FoxP3+ cells correlated with all investigated macrophage subtypes showing the strongest association to numbers of M2a-like macrophages. Kidney function, as assessed by serum creatinine and serum urea, correlated positively with the number of total CD68+, M2a-like and M2c-like macrophages in the tubulointerstitium. In addition, total CD68+ and M2c-like macrophage numbers highly correlated with Austin activity score. Interestingly, in hypertensive lupus patients only the number of M2a-like macrophages was significantly increased compared to biopsies from normotensive lupus patients.
M2-like macrophages are the dominant subpopulation in human lupus nephritis and particularly, M2a subpopulations were associated with disease progression, but their role in disease progression remains unclear.