Apoptosis of tubular epithelial cells is a hallmark of acute kidney injury (AKI), but the cellular events preceding apoptosis in this setting are incompletely understood. Because matrix metalloproteinase 9 (MMP9) degrades matrix components involved in cell survival, we studied the role of MMP9 in AKI. In the mouse model of folic acid–induced AKI, we observed a marked increase of MMP9 activity in the S3 segment of the proximal tubule (S3PT), correlating with the apoptotic phase. MMP9 deficiency increased apoptosis and the severity of renal lesions and substantially delayed recovery of renal function. MMP9−/− mice exhibited significant apoptosis in the S3PT and the intercalated cells of the collecting duct (I-CD), whereas wild-type mice exhibited none in these segments. Stem cell factor (SCF), an MMP9 substrate, was identified in the S3PT, and its receptor, c-Kit, was expressed in both the S3PT and I-CD. MMP9 released the soluble form of SCF (sSCF) from kidney cells in vivo and in vitro. In addition, SCF inhibited apoptosis of tubular cells in vitro, rescued MMP9−/− S3PT and I-CD from apoptosis in vivo, and improved renal function. An ischemia-reperfusion model of AKI produced similar results. In patients with AKI, urinary sSCF increased with acute tubular necrosis but not with prerenal azotemia. In conclusion, these data show that MMP9 protects the S3 segment of the proximal tubule and the I-CD from apoptosis in AKI, most likely by releasing sSCF
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