IgA nephropathy (IgAN, also known as IgA nephritis, Berger disease (and variations), or synpharyngitic glomerulonephritis), is a disease of the kidney (or nephropathy), specifically it is a form of glomerulonephritis or an inflammation of the glomeruli of the kidney.
IgA nephropathy is the most common glomerulonephritis worldwide. Primary IgA nephropathy is characterized by deposition of the IgA antibody in the glomerulus. There are other diseases associated with glomerular IgA deposits, the most common being IgA vasculitis (formerly known as Henoch–Schönlein purpura [HSP]), which is considered by many to be a systemic form of IgA nephropathy. HSP presents with a characteristic purpuric skin rash, arthritis, and abdominal pain and occurs more commonly in young adults (16–35 years old). HSP is associated with a more benign prognosis than IgA nephropathy. In IgA nephropathy there is a slow progression to chronic kidney failure in 25–30% of cases during a period of 20 years.
The classic presentation (in 40–50% of the cases) is episodic hematuria, which usually starts within a day or two of a non-specific upper respiratory tract infection (hence synpharyngitic), as opposed to post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, which occurs some time (weeks) after initial infection. Less commonly gastrointestinal or urinary infection can be the inciting agent. All of these infections have in common the activation of mucosal defenses and hence IgA antibody production. Groin pain can also occur. The gross hematuria resolves after a few days, though microscopic hematuria may persist. These episodes occur on an irregular basis every few months and in most patients eventually subsides, although it can take many years. Renal function usually remains normal, though rarely, acute kidney failure may occur (see below). This presentation is more common in younger adults.
A smaller proportion (20-30%), usually the older population, have microscopic hematuria and proteinuria (less than 2 gram/day). These patients may not have any symptoms and are only clinically found if a physician decides to take a urine sample. Hence, the disease is more commonly diagnosed in situations where screening of urine is compulsory (e.g., schoolchildren in Japan).
Very rarely (5% each), the presenting history is:
Nephrotic syndrome (3-3.5 grams of protein loss in the urine, associated with a poorer prognosis)
Acute kidney failure (either as a complication of the frank hematuria, when it usually recovers, or due to rapidly progressive glomerulonephritis which often leads to chronic kidney failure)
Chronic kidney failure (no previous symptoms, presents with anemia, hypertension and other symptoms of kidney failure, in people who probably had longstanding undetected microscopic hematuria and/or proteinuria)
A variety of systemic diseases are associated with IgA nephropathy such as liver failure, celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, reactive arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and HIV. Diagnosis of IgA nephropathy and a search for any associated disease occasionally reveals such an underlying serious systemic disease. Occasionally, there are simultaneous symptoms of Henoch–Schönlein purpura; see below for more details on the association. Some HLA alleles have been suspected along with complement phenotypes as being genetic factors.
IgA nephropathy (Berger's disease) is a form of mesangial proliferative nephritis. It occurs when abnormal deposits of immunoglobin A build up inside the small blood vessels of the kidney. Structures in the kidney called glomeruli become inflamed. The disorder can appear suddenly (acute), or progress slowly over many years (chronic glomerulonephritis).
For an adult patient with isolated hematuria, tests such as ultrasound of the kidney and cystoscopy are usually done first to pinpoint the source of the bleeding. These tests would rule out kidney stones and bladder cancer, two other common urological causes of hematuria. In children and younger adults, the history and association with respiratory infection can raise the suspicion of IgA nephropathy. A kidney biopsy is necessary to confirm the diagnosis. The biopsy specimen shows proliferation of the mesangium, with IgA deposits on immunofluorescence and electron microscopy. However, patients with isolated microscopic hematuria (i.e. without associated proteinuria and with normal kidney function) are not usually biopsied since this is associated with an excellent prognosis. A urinalysis will show red blood cells, usually as red cell urinary casts. Proteinuria, usually less than 2 grams per day, also may be present. Other renal causes of isolated hematuria include thin basement membrane disease and Alport syndrome, the latter being a hereditary disease associated with hearing impairment and eye problems.
Other blood tests done to aid in the diagnosis include CRP or ESR, complement levels, ANA, and LDH. Protein electrophoresis and immunoglobulin levels can show increased IgA in 50% of all patients.
Male gender, proteinuria (especially > 2 g/day), hypertension, smoking, hyperlipidemia, older age, familial disease and elevated creatinine concentrations are markers of a poor outcome. Frank hematuria has shown discordant results with most studies showing a better prognosis, perhaps related to the early diagnosis, except for one group which reported a poorer prognosis. Proteinuria and hypertension are the most powerful prognostic factors in this group.
There are certain other features on kidney biopsy such as interstitial scarring which are associated with a poor prognosis. ACE gene polymorphism has been recently shown to have an impact with the DD genotype associated more commonly with progression to kidney failure.
The ideal treatment for IgAN would remove IgA from the glomerulus and prevent further IgA deposition. This goal still remains a remote prospect. There are a few additional caveats that have to be considered while treating IgA nephropathy. IgA nephropathy has a very variable course, ranging from a benign recurrent hematuria up to a rapid progression to chronic kidney failure. Hence the decision on which patients to treat should be based on the prognostic factors and the risk of progression. Also, IgA nephropathy recurs in transplants despite the use of ciclosporin, azathioprine or mycophenolate mofetil and steroids in these patients. There are persisting uncertainties, due to the limited number of patients included in the few controlled randomized studies performed to date, which hardly produce statistically significant evidence regarding the heterogeneity of IgA nephropathy patients, the diversity of study treatment protocols, and the length of follow-up.
Patients with isolated hematuria, proteinuria < 1 g/day and normal renal function have a benign course and are generally just followed up annually. In cases where tonsillitis is the precipitating factor for episodic hematuria, tonsillectomy has been claimed to reduce the frequency of those episodes. However, it does not reduce the incidence of progressive kidney failure. Also, the natural history of the disease is such that episodes of frank hematuria reduce over time, independent of any specific treatment. Similarly, prophylactic antibiotics have not been proven to be beneficial. Dietary gluten restriction, used to reduce mucosal antigen challenge, also has not been shown to preserve kidney function. Phenytoin has also been tried without any benefit.
A subset of IgA nephropathy patients, who have minimal change disease on light microscopy and clinically have nephrotic syndrome, show an exquisite response to steroids, behaving more or less like minimal change disease. In other patients, the evidence for steroids is not compelling. Short courses of high dose steroids have been proven to lack benefit. However, in patients with preserved renal function and proteinuria (1-3.5 g/day), a recent prospective study has shown that 6 months regimen of steroids may lessen proteinuria and preserve renal function. However, the risks of long-term steroid use have to be weighed in such cases. It should be noted that the study had 10 years of patient follow-up data, and did show a benefit for steroid therapy; there was a lower chance of reaching end-stage renal disease (renal function so poor that dialysis was required) in the steroid group. Importantly, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors were used in both groups equally.
Cyclophosphamide had been used in combination with anti-platelet/anticoagulants in unselected IgA nephropathy patients with conflicting results. Also, the side effect profile of this drug, including long term risk of malignancy and sterility, made it an unfavorable choice for use in young adults. However, one recent study, in a carefully selected high risk population of patients with declining GFR, showed that a combination of steroids and cyclophosphamide for the initial 3 months followed by azathioprine for a minimum of 2 years resulted in a significant preservation of renal function. Other agents such as mycophenolate mofetil, ciclosporin and mizoribine have also been tried with varying results.
A study from Mayo Clinic did show that long term treatment with omega-3 fatty acids results in reduction of progression to kidney failure, without, however, reducing proteinuria in a subset of patients with high risk of worsening kidney function. However, these results have not been reproduced by other study groups and in two subsequent meta-analyses. However, fish oil therapy does not have the drawbacks of immunosuppressive therapy. Also, apart from its unpleasant taste and abdominal discomfort, it is relatively safe to consume.
The events that tend to progressive kidney failure are not unique to IgA nephropathy and non-specific measures to reduce the same would be equally useful. These include low-protein diet and optimal control of blood pressure. The choice of the antihypertensive agent is open as long as the blood pressure is controlled to desired level. However, Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors and Angiotensin II receptor antagonists are favoured due to their anti-proteinuric effect.