Medical Grand Rounds

Autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease: Emerging concepts of pathogenesis and new treatments

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ABSTRACTSome of the mystery of autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD) is starting to clear. Basic research is shedding light on its pathogenesis, and new treatments are in clinical trials. This paper reviews some of these advances and what they mean to patients.


  • In ADPKD the expanding cysts destroy normally functioning kidney tissue, causing hypertension, pain, and other complications, but renal function remains relatively stable until kidney volumes reach a critical size.
  • Testing for genetic defects that cause ADPKD is available. The specific mutation involved (PKD1 or PKD2) affects the age of onset and therefore the rate of disease progression as well as the likelihood of cardiovascular complications. Other factors include somatic mutations (“second hits”) of the normal paired chromosome.
  • Intracranial aneurysms are a key noncystic feature and may present with a very severe (“sentinel” or “thunderclap”) headache requiring immediate medical attention. Their occurrence is strongly influenced by family history.
  • Basic research indicates that patients may be advised to increase their water intake, limit their sodium intake, and avoid caffeine and methylxanthine derivatives.



A 25-year-old married white woman presented to a clinic because of pelvic pain. A computed tomographic scan of her abdomen and pelvis without intravenous contrast showed two definite cysts in the right kidney (the larger measuring 2.5 cm) and a 1.5-cm cyst in the left kidney. It also showed several smaller (< 1 cm) areas of low density in both kidneys that suggested cysts. Renal ultrasonography also showed two cysts in the left kidney and one in the right kidney. The kidneys were normal-sized—the right one measured 12.5 cm and the left one 12.7 cm.

She had no family history of autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD), and renal ultrasonography of her parents showed no cystic disease. She had no history of headache or heart murmur, and her blood pressure was normal. Her kidneys were barely palpable, her liver was not enlarged, and she had no cardiac murmur or click. She was not taking any medications. Her serum creatinine level was 0.7 mg/dL, hemoglobin 14.0 g/dL, and urinalysis normal.

Does this patient have ADPKD? Based on the studies done so far, would genetic testing be useful? If the genetic analysis does show a mutation, what additional information can be derived from the location of that mutation? Can she do anything to improve her prognosis?


ADPKD is the most common of all inherited renal diseases, with 600,000 to 700,000 cases in the United States and about 12.5 million cases worldwide. About 5,000 to 6,000 new cases are diagnosed yearly in the United States, about 40% of them by age 45. Typically, patients with ADPKD have a family history of the disease, but about 5% to 10% do not. In about 50% of cases, ADPKD progresses to end-stage renal disease by age 60, and it accounts for about 3% of cases of end-stage renal disease in the United States.1


In ADPKD, cysts in the kidneys increase in number and size over time, ultimately destroying normal renal tissue. However, renal function remains steady over many years until the kidneys have approximately quadrupled in volume to 1,500 cm3 (normal combined kidney volume is about 250 to 400 cm3), which defines a tipping point beyond which renal function can rapidly decline.2,3 Ultimately, the patient will need renal replacement therapy, ie, dialysis or renal transplantation.

The cysts (kidney and liver) cause discomfort and pain by putting pressure on the abdominal wall, flanks, and back, by impinging on neighboring organs, by bleeding into the cysts, and by the development of kidney stones or infected cysts (which are uncommon, though urinary tract infections themselves are more frequent). Kidney stones occur in about 20% of patients with ADPKD, and uric acid stones are almost as common as calcium oxalate stones. Compression of the iliac vein and inferior vena cava with possible thrombus formation and pulmonary embolism can be caused by enormous enlargement of the cystic kidneys, particularly the right.4 Interestingly, the patients at greatest risk of pulmonary embolism after renal transplantation are those with ADPKD.5

Cysts can also develop in other organs. Liver cysts develop in about 80% of patients. Usually, the cysts do not affect liver function, but because they are substantially estrogen-dependent they can be more of a clinical problem in women. About 10% of patients have cysts in the pancreas, but these are functionally insignificant. Other locations of cysts include the spleen, arachnoid membranes, and seminal vesicles in men.

Intracranial aneurysms are a key noncystic feature, and these are strongly influenced by family history. A patient with ADPKD who has a family member with ADPKD as well as an intracranial aneurysm or subarachnoid hemorrhage has about a 20% chance of having an intracranial aneurysm. A key clinical warning is a “sentinel” or “thunderclap” headache, which patients typically rate as at least a 10 on a scale of 10 in severity. In a patient with ADPKD, this type of headache can signal a leaking aneurysm causing irritation and edema of the surrounding brain tissue that temporarily tamponades the bleeding before the aneurysm actually ruptures. This is a critical period when a patient should immediately obtain emergency care.

Cardiac valve abnormalities occur in about one-third of patients. Most common is mitral valve prolapse, which is usually mild. Abnormalities can also occur in the aortic valve and the left ventricular outflow tract.

Hernias are the third general noncystic feature of ADPKD. Patients with ADPKD have an increased prevalence of umbilical, hiatal, and inguinal hernias, as well as diverticulae of the colon.

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