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Diabetic Nephropathy

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Last Update: July 24, 2023.

Continuing Education Activity

Diabetic kidney disease (DKD) is the main cause of end-stage kidney disease (ESKD) in developed countries, including the United States. It is considered a microvascular complication and occurs in both diabetes mellitus type 1 (T1DM) and diabetes mellitus type 2 (T2DM). Reliable tests for diagnosis and monitoring include urine albuminuria and the estimated GFR (eGFR). Optimizing glycemia and good blood pressure control are pivotal in halting the progression of DKD. This activity reviews the cause and pathophysiology of diabetic nephropathy and highlights the role of the interprofessional team in its management.


  • Review the presentation of diabetic nephropathy.
  • Describe the evaluation of a patient with diabetic nephropathy.
  • Summarize the treatment of diabetic nephropathy.
  • Outline modalities to improve care coordination among interprofessional team members in order to improve outcomes for patients affected by diabetic nephropathy.
Access free multiple choice questions on this topic.


Diabetic kidney disease (DKD) is the leading cause of end-stage kidney disease (ESKD) in developed countries, including the United States.[1] It is considered a microvascular complication and occurs in both diabetes mellitus type 1 (T1DM) and diabetes mellitus type 2 (T2DM). The disorder presents with persistent albuminuria and a progressive decline in the glomerular filtration rate. There is substantial evidence that early treatment can delay or prevent the progression of the disorder.

Reliable tests for diagnosis and monitoring include urine albuminuria and the estimated GFR (eGFR). Optimizing glycemia and reasonable blood pressure control are pivotal in halting the progression of DKD.[2]


Thirty to 40 percent of patients with diabetes mellitus (DM)develop diabetic nephropathy.[3] The exact cause of diabetic nephropathy remains unknown, but insulin resistance, genetics, hyperglycemia, and an autoimmune process may be the causes.


While patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus may present with albuminuria at the time the diabetes is detected, diabetic nephropathy develops in type 1 diabetes 15 to 20 years later. This difference is mainly because the precise onset of type 2 diabetes is difficult to discern. Structural and functional changes occur in the kidney on account of diabetes and result in proteinuria, hypertension, and progressive reduction of kidney function, which is the hallmark of diabetic nephropathy.

Certain racial groups like African Americans, Native Americans, and Mexican Americans are at high risk of developing diabetic nephropathy. Studies have noted familial clustering, hinting that genetics plays a part in the risk of developing nephropathy.


Hyperglycemia leads to the production of reactive oxygen species and activation of pathways, including protein kinase C, polyol, hexosamine, and advanced glycation end products (AGE). A significant feature is marked inflammation manifested by an increase in cytokines and chemokines, including IL-6, MCP-1, TGF-beta (transforming growth factor-beta), and VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor), causing inflammation fibrosis and increased vascular permeability. A podocytopathy ensues, resulting in albuminuria. The resulting systemic and intraglomerular hypertension results in proteinuria. Proteinuria causes epithelial-mesenchymal cell transformation leading to fibroblasts and chronic tubular injury.


Kimmelstiel-Wilson nodules, glomerular basement membrane thickening, and glomerular sclerosis, inflammation are the common pathologies seen in diabetic nephropathy.

History and Physical

Increasing duration of DM, poor glycemic control, and uncontrolled hypertension are strong risk factors for the development of diabetic nephropathy (DN). A family history of hypertension and cardiovascular events in first-degree relatives is also a strong risk factor for developing diabetic nephropathy. Obesity, smoking, and hyperlipidemia are risk factors for DN. This, along with family clustering, suggests genetic factors could also be at play. Several genes, including polymorphisms in angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) and angiotensin receptor, are being studied. Males are at higher risk of developing diabetic nephropathy.

Diabetic nephropathy is diagnosed by persistent albuminuria on two or more occasions, separated at least by three months on early morning urine samples. Persistent albuminuria is greater than 300 mg over 24 hours or greater than 200 micrograms per minute. Moderately increased albuminuria is when the urine albumin excretion rate is between 30 to 300 mg over 24 hours and is a marker of early DN. It is critical to exclude a urinary tract infection as the cause of albuminuria by a urinalysis. 

Early in the course of the disease, patients are often asymptomatic and are diagnosed during screening with levels of 30 to 300 mg/g creatinine. Once nephropathy sets in, patients present with fatigue, foamy urine (urine protein greater than 3.5 g per day), and pedal edema due to hypoalbuminemia and nephrotic syndrome. They may also have associated peripheral vascular disease, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and diabetic retinopathy.


Proteinuria is the hallmark of diabetic nephropathy. The absence of retinopathy makes diabetic nephropathy less likely in T1DM.

The scenario is more difficult in T2DM than with T1DM. The exact time of the onset of T2DM is unclear in most patients. History and physical exam play a crucial role in diagnosing diabetic nephropathy in T2DM.

The criteria for diagnosis include:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Progressive decline in glomerular filtration rate (GFR)
  • Persistent albuminuria (greater than 300 mg/d) on at least two visits 3-6 months apart. 

Urine analysis is used to quantify urea, creatinine, and protein. Microscopy is done to rule out a nephritic cause. Serum and urine electrophoresis is done to rule out multiple myeloma, and renal ultrasound is done to assess the kidney size. A renal biopsy is done when the diagnosis is not clear.

Treatment / Management

Treatment of diabetic nephropathy targets four areas: cardiovascular risk reduction, glycemic control, control of blood pressure, and inhibition of the renin-angiotensin system (RAS).

Risk-factor modification, including tobacco cessation and optimal lipid control strategies, are crucial for cardiovascular risk reduction.

Studies have shown a significant reduction in the risk of developing proteinuria and microalbuminuria with intensive diabetes control in T1DM.[4] These studies include DCCT (Diabetes Control and Complications Trial) and EDIC (Epidemiology of Diabetes Interventions and Complications study). The benefits of good glycemic control early in the onset of disease carried over even after a long time, despite glycemic control being similar in both groups on longer follow up. This effect is "metabolic memory," a term coined by DCCT/EDIC investigators.

In T2DM, UKPDS (United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study) showed that targeting an HbA1C of 7% led to a lower risk of microvascular complications, including nephropathy.[5] However, blood pressure (BP) control also led to a decrease in cardiovascular mortality.

Studies have shown the benefit of ARBs (angiotensin receptor blockers) in delaying the progression of kidney disease.[6][7] These include studies like RENAAL (Reduction of Endpoints in NIDDM with the Angiotensin II Antagonist Losartan Study) and IDNT (Irbesartan Diabetes Nephropathy Trial), which also showed that the BP achieved, better-predicted kidney outcome rather than BP at entry, emphasizing the need for BP control. UKPDS showed the benefit of BP control on any DM-related complication such as death, adverse cardiovascular events, and the composite of microvascular events. However, aggressive control of systolic BP to less than 120 mm Hg, as opposed to standard therapy (less than 140 mm Hg systolic), found no difference in cardiovascular outcome or end-stage renal disease. The Eighth Joint National Committee (JNC 8) guidelines recommend a goal BP less than 140/90 mm Hg for most patients with T2DM and diabetic nephropathy, but with individualization.[8] Recent diabetic society guidelines suggest goals of 130/80 for people with diabetes.

While RAS blockade is crucial to prevent the development of diabetic nephropathy, multiple studies show that early therapy in patients with T1DM is ineffective in preventing the development of microalbuminuria. However, studies, including ROADMAP (Randomized Olmesartan and Diabetes Microalbuminuria Prevention), have shown that RAS blockade can prevent the development of microalbuminuria in T2DM.[9]

Studies like IRMA2 (Irbesartan in Microalbuminuria, Type 2 Diabetic Nephropathy Trial) have shown the benefit of ARB in preventing proteinuria in patients with microalbuminuria.[10] Studies in patients with T1DM and overt proteinuria have also shown that ACE inhibitors slow the progress of diabetic nephropathy. The IDNT and RENAAL studies have shown similar benefits in T2DM patients. These studies provide clear evidence of the benefit of RAS-blocking medication on slowing progression of diabetic nephropathy, independent of their effect on BP. However, the use of more than one RAS-blocking agents resulted in multiple adverse outcomes, including acute renal failure, and has fallen out of favor.

Newer drugs like a third-generation mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist, finerenone, has shown albuminuria reduction in diabetic nephropathy at 90 days, on patients already on ARB.[11] The EMPAREG and CANVAS studies showed that SGLT2 (sodium-glucose co-transporter 2) inhibitors that prevent reabsorption of glucose via the renal tubules reduced cardiovascular mortality.[12] In these cardiovascular outcome trials, the SGLT2 inhibitors had positive effects on kidney outcomes, namely albuminuria reduction and a reduction in the occurrence of a composite renal outcome. However, since these are secondary outcomes of trials designed to test cardiovascular benefit, many studies are now underway to test the actual potential of this group of drugs to prevent the progression of diabetic nephropathy.

Renal Replacement

Once the end-stage renal disease develops with a GFR of 10-15 ml/min, renal replacement therapy may be required. There are several options for dialysis, including peritoneal, hemodialysis, and renal transplant. Renal transplant is considered the best option, and this alternative must be discussed early with the family.

Differential Diagnosis

  • Multiple myeloma
  • Nephrotic syndrome
  • Renal artery stenosis
  • Tubulointerstitial nephritis

Toxicity and Adverse Effect Management

Effect of CKD on Diabetes Drugs

The kidneys play a crucial role in clearing insulin from the body.  When the kidney fails, insulin remains for longer periods in the body, and this warrants dose reduction of insulin to prevent hypoglycemia. This principle also is true for most oral antidiabetic medications that are cleared from the kidney.

Metformin is contraindicated in patients with eGFR less than 30 mL/min/1.73 m2, due to the likelihood of lactic acidosis. With most oral drugs, the physician needs to be cautious when the eGFR is less than 45 mL per minute and especially below 30 mL per minute.

Patients with diabetic nephropathy are at risk of developing acute kidney injury (AKI) and, one must exercise extreme caution with the use of nephrotoxic medications like NSAID, intravenous contrast, among others.


Current Guidelines

  • Optimize blood glucose control
  • Optimize blood pressure control with ACE inhibitors or ARBs
  • Limit protein intake to 0.8 g/kg body weight
  • Monitor serum creatinine and BUN
  • Monitor urine albumin - creatinine ratio
  • ACE inhibitors or ARB are not recommended in patients with normal BP, normal GFR and normal urinary albumin to creatinine ratio
  • when GFR falls below 60 ml/min, assess for complications of chronic kidney disease
  • If GFR is below 30 ml/min, refer to a nephrologist for renal replacement
  • Always refer to a nephrologist to manage chronic kidney disease


Diabetic nephropathy carries high morbidity and mortality. Microalbuminuria is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular mortality. The majority of patients die from end-stage renal disease. In addition, diabetic retinopathy is associated with diabetic nephropathy.


When the eGFR is below 45 mL per minute, and the patient has albuminuria greater than 300 mg/g creatinine a nephrology consult is prudent to establish a baseline for future renal replacement therapy.

Deterrence and Patient Education

  • Protein intake should be around 0.8 g per kilogram body weight.
  • Hemoglobin A1c should be less than 7.5%
  • Blood pressure should be less than 120/80 mmHg
  • Avoid nephrotoxic agents and drugs
  • Check urine for albumin regularly

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Diabetic nephropathy is a serious disorder with life long repercussions and a high mortality rate. There is no cure for the disorder, and all treatments have limitations. The key today is to prevent nephropathy from developing. Thus an interprofessional clinical team is crucial in reducing cardiovascular risk factors, glycemic control, and decreased risk of complications across multiple countries [13].

[Level 5]

The current recommendation is that the patient also is included as a member of this interprofessional treatment team for optimal outcomes. The nurse should educate the patient on the importance of glucose control, exercise, follow up, and a healthy diet, whereas the pharmacist should educate the patient on medication compliance and blood pressure control. A dietary consult should be made to educate the patient on low protein foods, and a social worker should ensure that the patient has the support and financial resources for treatment. The nephrologist and dialysis nurses should educate the patient on renal replacement options, and the transplant nurse should educate the patient on the indications and benefits of a transplant.

Further, these patients should be taught how to monitor and treat their blood glucose levels at home. Studies show that patients who remain compliant with home monitoring of blood glucose tend to have a delay in renal dysfunction.[14]

Evidence shows that working in an interprofessional team with open communication offers patients the best outcomes. [15]

Review Questions


Rabkin R. Diabetic nephropathy. Clin Cornerstone. 2003;5(2):1-11. [PubMed: 12800476]
Diabetes Canada Clinical Practice Guidelines Expert Committee. McFarlane P, Cherney D, Gilbert RE, Senior P. Chronic Kidney Disease in Diabetes. Can J Diabetes. 2018 Apr;42 Suppl 1:S201-S209. [PubMed: 29650098]
Umanath K, Lewis JB. Update on Diabetic Nephropathy: Core Curriculum 2018. Am J Kidney Dis. 2018 Jun;71(6):884-895. [PubMed: 29398179]
DCCT/EDIC research group. Effect of intensive diabetes treatment on albuminuria in type 1 diabetes: long-term follow-up of the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial and Epidemiology of Diabetes Interventions and Complications study. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 2014 Oct;2(10):793-800. [PMC free article: PMC4215637] [PubMed: 25043685]
Genuth S, Eastman R, Kahn R, Klein R, Lachin J, Lebovitz H, Nathan D, Vinicor F., American Diabetes Association. Implications of the United kingdom prospective diabetes study. Diabetes Care. 2003 Jan;26 Suppl 1:S28-32. [PubMed: 12502617]
Brenner BM, Cooper ME, de Zeeuw D, Keane WF, Mitch WE, Parving HH, Remuzzi G, Snapinn SM, Zhang Z, Shahinfar S., RENAAL Study Investigators. Effects of losartan on renal and cardiovascular outcomes in patients with type 2 diabetes and nephropathy. N Engl J Med. 2001 Sep 20;345(12):861-9. [PubMed: 11565518]
Lewis EJ, Hunsicker LG, Clarke WR, Berl T, Pohl MA, Lewis JB, Ritz E, Atkins RC, Rohde R, Raz I., Collaborative Study Group. Renoprotective effect of the angiotensin-receptor antagonist irbesartan in patients with nephropathy due to type 2 diabetes. N Engl J Med. 2001 Sep 20;345(12):851-60. [PubMed: 11565517]
Armstrong C., Joint National Committee. JNC8 guidelines for the management of hypertension in adults. Am Fam Physician. 2014 Oct 01;90(7):503-4. [PubMed: 25369633]
Menne J, Ritz E, Ruilope LM, Chatzikyrkou C, Viberti G, Haller H. The Randomized Olmesartan and Diabetes Microalbuminuria Prevention (ROADMAP) observational follow-up study: benefits of RAS blockade with olmesartan treatment are sustained after study discontinuation. J Am Heart Assoc. 2014;3(2):e000810. [PMC free article: PMC4187490] [PubMed: 24772521]
Parving HH, Lehnert H, Bröchner-Mortensen J, Gomis R, Andersen S, Arner P., Irbesartan in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes and Microalbuminuria Study Group. The effect of irbesartan on the development of diabetic nephropathy in patients with type 2 diabetes. N Engl J Med. 2001 Sep 20;345(12):870-8. [PubMed: 11565519]
Bakris GL, Agarwal R, Chan JC, Cooper ME, Gansevoort RT, Haller H, Remuzzi G, Rossing P, Schmieder RE, Nowack C, Kolkhof P, Joseph A, Pieper A, Kimmeskamp-Kirschbaum N, Ruilope LM., Mineralocorticoid Receptor Antagonist Tolerability Study–Diabetic Nephropathy (ARTS-DN) Study Group. Effect of Finerenone on Albuminuria in Patients With Diabetic Nephropathy: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2015 Sep 01;314(9):884-94. [PubMed: 26325557]
Rastogi A, Bhansali A. SGLT2 Inhibitors Through the Windows of EMPA-REG and CANVAS Trials: A Review. Diabetes Ther. 2017 Dec;8(6):1245-1251. [PMC free article: PMC5688986] [PubMed: 29076040]
McGill M, Blonde L, Chan JCN, Khunti K, Lavalle FJ, Bailey CJ., Global Partnership for Effective Diabetes Management. The interdisciplinary team in type 2 diabetes management: Challenges and best practice solutions from real-world scenarios. J Clin Transl Endocrinol. 2017 Mar;7:21-27. [PMC free article: PMC5651292] [PubMed: 29067246]
Mahnensmith RL, Zorzanello M, Hsu YH, Williams ME. A quality improvement model for optimizing care of the diabetic end-stage renal disease patient. Semin Dial. 2010 Mar-Apr;23(2):206-13. [PubMed: 20525109]
Shen ZZ, Huang YY, Hsieh CJ. Early short-term intensive multidisciplinary diabetes care: A ten-year follow-up of outcomes. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2017 Aug;130:133-141. [PubMed: 28618325]

Disclosure: Ron Varghese declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

Disclosure: Ishwarlal Jialal declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

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Bookshelf ID: NBK534200PMID: 30480939


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