Smarca4’s crucial impact on nephrogenesis and carcinogenesis


Chronic kidney disease is a global health issue with substantial morbidity and mortality. Understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying kidney development and disease is crucial for developing therapeutic interventions. Nephrogenesis, the process of kidney development, is a complex event involving multiple cell types and gene regulation networks. Smarca4, a key component of the SWI/SNF chromatin remodeling complex and during embryonic development, Smarca4, is involved in the regulation of genes that are crucial for the formation and differentiation of kidney tissues. It controls the proper organization of nephrons, the functional units of the kidney, by influencing the expression of key developmental genes. Smarca4 has also been identified as a significant tumor suppressor, with somatic mutations associated with childhood cancers including Wilms tumors. It’s important to note that research in better understanding of the exact mechanisms by which Smarca4 influences kidney development and cancer is urgently needed.

In a new study published in the peer-reviewed Journal Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology by Jinshu Xu, Xianxiao Zhou, Ting Zhang, Bin Zhang, and led by Professor Pin-Xian Xu from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, conducted a series of experiments to understand the role of the chromatin remodeling factor Smarca4 in kidney development, with a particular focus on its impact in Wnt4-expressing cells. Wnt4 is an early marker for nephron differentiation and is essential for smooth muscle cell fate commitment in the kidney. The researchers created a mouse model with a conditional knockout (KO) of Smarca4 specifically in Wnt4-expressing cells. They used Wnt4Cre mice crossed with Smarca4fl/fl mice to achieve this targeted deletion. They conducted histological examinations on kidney tissues from both control and Smarca4 knockout mice. This included hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) staining to assess morphological changes. Various markers for different segments of the nephron (e.g., Wt1, PHA-L, LTL, NCC, THP) were used in immunostaining to identify specific cell types and assess their presence and distribution in the kidney. Immunohistochemistry was performed to visualize the expression of critical genes in kidney tissues. The authors observed that the KO of Smarca4 in Wnt4-expressing cells resulted in significant kidney malformations, including severe tubular defects and a shortened medulla.

The researchers used Fluorescence-Activated Cell Sorting to isolate specific cell populations from kidneys of both control and Smarca4 KO mice, followed by Single-Cell RNA Sequencing. This allowed for a detailed analysis of changes in gene expression at the single-cell level. The scRNA-seq revealed a notable increase in interstitial cells but a marked reduction in tubular cells in Smarca4-deficient kidneys. This indicated a disruption in the balance of cell types essential for proper kidney structure and function.

Additionally, the team conducted RT-qPCR to quantify the expression levels of key genes like Pttg1 in isolated cells. Smarca4 deficiency led to hyperproliferation of Wnt4-expressing cells. There was a significant upregulation of the oncogene Pttg1, suggesting a link between Smarca4 loss and potential oncogenic pathways. Cells in Smarca4-deficient kidneys exhibited mixed identities, characterized by elevated expression of cell-cycle regulators and genes associated with the extracellular matrix and EMT/fibrosis.

The study revealed that Smarca4 deficiency led to severe tubular defects and a shortened kidney medulla. Through single-cell RNA sequencing, the researchers identified changes in cell populations, notably an increase in interstitial cells and a decrease in tubular cells. Smarca4 loss induced hyperproliferation of cells and upregulated the expression of the oncogene Pttg1. Importantly, Smarca4 deficiency resulted in cells with mixed identity, displaying elevated expression of cell-cycle regulators and genes associated with extracellular matrix and epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT)/fibrosis. This misregulation potentially hinders the formation of characteristic tubular structures, leading to fibrosis.

These findings highlight the critical role of Smarca4 in kidney development, particularly in regulating tubular cell differentiation and the expression of cancer-related genes. The upregulation of Pttg1 in Smarca4-deficient kidneys offers new perspectives on therapeutic strategies for renal cell carcinoma arising from SWI/SNF complex deficiency. Further research is required to understand the detailed molecular pathways and the interaction of Smarca4 with other cell type-specific transcription factors. This study opens avenues for exploring the roles of chromatin remodelers in kidney disease and highlights the potential for developing targeted therapies for conditions like renal cell carcinoma and Wilms tumor.

In conclusion, the comprehensive study by Professor Pin-Xian Xu and colleagues advances our understanding of the molecular mechanisms governing kidney development and the pathological processes leading to kidney disease. The critical role of Smarca4 in nephrogenesis and its association with renal cell carcinoma provides a foundation for future research in nephrology and oncology, with the potential for significant clinical implications with developing targeted therapies for related conditions.


Xu J, Zhou X, Zhang T, Zhang B, Xu PX. Smarca4 deficiency induces Pttg1 oncogene upregulation and hyperproliferation of tubular and interstitial cells during kidney development. Front Cell Dev Biol. 2023;11:1233317. doi: 10.3389/fcell.2023.1233317.

Go To Front Cell Dev Biol.