Comparison of renal histopathology and gene expression profiles between severe COVID-19 and bacterial sepsis in critically ill patients

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Background: The mechanisms driving acute kidney injury (AKI) in critically ill COVID-19 patients are unclear. We collected kidney biopsies from COVID-19 AKI patients within 30 min after death in order to examine the histopathology and perform mRNA expression analysis of genes associated with renal injury.

Methods: This study involved histopathology and mRNA analyses of postmortem kidney biopsies collected from patients with COVID-19 (n = 6) and bacterial sepsis (n = 27). Normal control renal tissue was obtained from patients undergoing total nephrectomy (n = 12). The mean length of ICU admission-to-biopsy was 30 days for COVID-19 and 3-4 days for bacterial sepsis patients.

Results: We did not detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA in kidney biopsies from COVID-19-AKI patients yet lung tissue from the same patients was PCR positive. Extensive acute tubular necrosis (ATN) and peritubular thrombi were distinct histopathology features of COVID-19-AKI compared to bacterial sepsis-AKI. ACE2 mRNA levels in both COVID-19 (fold change 0.42, p = 0.0002) and bacterial sepsis patients (fold change 0.24, p < 0.0001) were low compared to control. The mRNA levels of injury markers NGAL and KIM-1 were unaltered compared to control tissue but increased in sepsis-AKI patients. Markers for inflammation and endothelial activation were unaltered in COVID-19 suggesting a lack of renal inflammation. Renal mRNA levels of endothelial integrity markers CD31, PV-1 and VE-Cadherin did not differ from control individuals yet were increased in bacterial sepsis patients (CD31 fold change 2.3, p = 0.0006, PV-1 fold change 1.5, p = 0.008). Angiopoietin-1 mRNA levels were downregulated in renal tissue from both COVID-19 (fold change 0.27, p < 0.0001) and bacterial sepsis patients (fold change 0.67, p < 0.0001) compared to controls. Moreover, low Tie2 mRNA expression (fold change 0.33, p = 0.037) and a disturbed VEGFR2/VEGFR3 ratio (fold change 0.09, p < 0.0001) suggest decreased microvascular flow in COVID-19.

Conclusions: In a small cohort of postmortem kidney biopsies from COVID-19 patients, we observed distinct histopathological and gene expression profiles between COVID-19-AKI and bacterial sepsis-AKI. COVID-19 was associated with more severe ATN and microvascular thrombosis coupled with decreased microvascular flow, yet minimal inflammation. Further studies are required to determine whether these observations are a result of true pathophysiological differences or related to the timing of biopsy after disease onset.

Original languageEnglish
Article number202
Number of pages12
JournalCritical care (London, England)
Issue number1
Early online date10-Jun-2021
Publication statusPublished - 10-Jun-2021


  • COVID-19
  • Acute kidney injury
  • Bacterial sepsis

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