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Urea, a true uremic toxin: the empire strikes back.


Blood levels of urea rise with progressive decline in kidney function. Older studies examining acute urea infusion suggested that urea was well-tolerated at levels 8-10× above normal values. More recent in vitro and in vivo work argue the opposite and demonstrate both direct and indirect toxicities of urea, which probably promote the premature aging phenotype that is pervasive in chronic kidney disease (CKD). Elevated urea at concentrations typically encountered in uremic patients induces disintegration of the gut epithelial barrier, leading to translocation of bacterial toxins into the bloodstream and systemic inflammation. Urea induces apoptosis of vascular smooth muscle cells as well as endothelial dysfunction, thus directly promoting cardiovascular disease. Further, urea stimulates oxidative stress and dysfunction in adipocytes, leading to insulin resistance. Finally, there are widespread indirect effects of elevated urea as a result of the carbamylation reaction, where isocyanic acid (a product of urea catabolism) alters the structure and function of proteins in the body. Carbamylation has been linked with renal fibrosis, atherosclerosis and anaemia. In summary, urea is a re-emerging Dark Force in CKD pathophysiology. Trials examining low protein diet to minimize accumulation of urea and other toxins suggest a clinical benefit in terms of slowing progression of CKD.

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