Human Kidney Biopsy Single Cell Protocols and Analysis

Key Personnel

Benjamin D. Humphreys (PI)
Washington University in St. Louis

Project Description


Our partnership project aims to establish conditions for the transportation and storage of human kidney biopsies. These protocols will be optimized to ensure maximal cell viability and preservation of mRNA integrity. In the second phase of this project, we will compare single cell RNA sequencing technologies: FACS-seq and Drop-seq. Our goal is to determine which approach will be best adapted to the large-scale investigation of human kidney disease in large populations.


  1. Recent Insights into Kidney Injury and Repair from Transcriptomic Analyses.

    Kirita, Yuhei; Chang-Panesso, Monica; Humphreys, Benjamin D. Nephron. 21:1–4. May 2019.

    Injured tubular epithelium exhibits cellular plasticity in that it can dedifferentiate, reenter the cell cycle, and subsequently either redifferentiate or adopt a chronically injured phenotype. Although some nephrogenic genes are reexpressed during injury and repair, developmental pathways are only partially recapitulated and the process is more accurately viewed as an entirely new program intrinsic to the regenerative response to injury. Recent advances in our understanding of the molecular circuitry underpinning epithelial plasticity have come from bulk, cell-specific, and single-cell transcriptomic analyses. These results have begun to define the signaling pathways and gene regulatory networks governing the epithelial injury response. In this review, we highlight recent transcriptomic analyses in kidney injury, repair and fibrosis, and outline the ways that these studies are improving our understanding of kidney regeneration.

  2. Single Cell Transcriptomics and Solid Organ Transplantation.

    Malone, Andrew F.; Humphreys, Benjamin D. Transplantation. April 2019.

    Single cell RNA-sequencing (scRNA-seq) allows the measurement of transcriptomes from individual cells providing new insights into complex biological systems. scRNA-seq has enabled the identification of rare cell types, new cell states and intercellular communication networks that may be masked by traditional bulk transcriptional profiling. Researchers are increasingly using scRNA-seq to comprehensively characterize complex organs in health and disease. The diversity of immune cell types, some present at low frequency, in a transplanted organ undergoing rejection makes scRNA-seq ideally suited to characterize transplant pathologies because it can quantify subtle transcriptional differences between rare cell types. In this review we discuss single cell sequencing methods and their application in transplantation to date, current challenges and future directions. We believe that the remarkably rapid pace of technological development in this field makes it likely that single cell technologies such as scRNA-seq will have an impact in clinical transplantation within a decade.

  3. Single-cell genomics and gene editing: implications for nephrology

    Wilson, Parker C.; Humphreys, Benjamin D. Nature Reviews Nephrology. 15(2):63–64. February 2019.

    Discoveries in 2018 using single-cell sequencing and gene-editing technologies have revealed their transformative potential for the investigation of kidney physiology and disease. Their promise is matched by the speed of their evolution.

  4. Advantages of Single-Nucleus over Single-Cell RNA Sequencing of Adult Kidney: Rare Cell Types and Novel Cell States Revealed in Fibrosis.

    Wu, Haojia; Kirita, Yuhei; Donnelly, Erinn L.; Humphreys, Benjamin D. J Am Soc Nephrol. 30(1):23–32. January 2019.

    BACKGROUND: A challenge for single-cell genomic studies in kidney and other solid tissues is generating a high-quality single-cell suspension that contains rare or difficult-to-dissociate cell types and is free of both RNA degradation and artifactual transcriptional stress responses. METHODS: We compared single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) using the DropSeq platform with single-nucleus RNA sequencing (snRNA-seq) using sNuc-DropSeq, DroNc-seq, and 10X Chromium platforms on adult mouse kidney. We validated snRNA-seq on fibrotic kidney from mice 14 days after unilateral ureteral obstruction (UUO) surgery. RESULTS: A total of 11,391 transcriptomes were generated in the comparison phase. We identified ten clusters in the scRNA-seq dataset, but glomerular cell types were absent, and one cluster consisted primarily of artifactual dissociation-induced stress response genes. By contrast, snRNA-seq from all three platforms captured a diversity of kidney cell types that were not represented in the scRNA-seq dataset, including glomerular podocytes, mesangial cells, and endothelial cells. No stress response genes were detected. Our snRNA-seq protocol yielded 20-fold more podocytes compared with published scRNA-seq datasets (2.4% versus 0.12%, respectively). Unexpectedly, single-cell and single-nucleus platforms had equivalent gene detection sensitivity. For validation, analysis of frozen day 14 UUO kidney revealed rare juxtaglomerular cells, novel activated proximal tubule and fibroblast cell states, and previously unidentified tubulointerstitial signaling pathways. CONCLUSIONS: snRNA-seq achieves comparable gene detection to scRNA-seq in adult kidney, and it also has substantial advantages, including reduced dissociation bias, compatibility with frozen samples, elimination of dissociation-induced transcriptional stress responses, and successful performance on inflamed fibrotic kidney.

  5. Kidney and organoid single-cell transcriptomics: the end of the beginning.

    Wilson, Parker C.; Humphreys, Benjamin D. Pediatr Nephrol. January 2019.

    Single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) technologies are increasingly being applied to reveal cellular heterogeneity in kidney development and disease. In just the last year, multiple scRNA-seq datasets have been generated from kidney organoids, developing mouse and human kidney, adult kidney, and kidney cancer. The data generated enables a much deeper understanding of biological processes within and between cells. It has also elucidated unforeseen cell lineage relationships, defined the presence of off-target cell types in kidney organoids, and revealed a diverse inflammatory response in a human kidney allograft undergoing rejection. This review summarizes the recent rapid progress in scRNA-seq of the kidney and outlines future directions for single-cell technologies as applied to the kidney.

  6. The Single Cell Transcriptomic Landscape of Early Human Diabetic Nephropathy

    Wilson, Parker C.; Wu, Haojia; Kirita, Yuhei; Uchimura, Kohei; Rennke, Helmut G.; Welling, Paul A.; Waikar, Sushrut S.; Humphreys, Benjamin D. bioRxiv. 2019.

    Diabetic nephropathy is characterized by damage to both the glomerulus and tubulointerstitium, but relatively little is known about accompanying cell-specific changes in gene expression. We performed unbiased single nucleus RNA sequencing (snRNAseq) on cryopreserved human diabetic kidney samples to generate 23,980 single nucleus transcriptomes from three control and three early diabetic nephropathy samples. All major cell types of the kidney were represented in the final dataset. Side by side comparison demonstrated cell-type-specific changes in gene expression that are important for ion transport, angiogenesis, and immune cell activation. In particular, we show that the diabetic loop of Henle, late distal convoluted tubule, and principal cells all adopt a gene expression signature consistent with increased potassium secretion, including alterations in Na-K+-ATPase, WNK1, mineralocorticoid receptor and NEDD4L expression, as well as decreased paracellular calcium and magnesium reabsorption. We also identify strong angiogenic signatures in glomerular cell types, proximal convoluted tubule, distal convoluted tubule and principal cells. Taken together, these results suggest that increased potassium secretion and angiogenic signaling represent early kidney responses in human diabetic nephropathy.Significance Statement Single nucleus RNA sequencing revealed gene expression changes in early diabetic nephropathy that promote urinary potassium secretion and decreased calcium and magnesium reabsorption. Multiple cell types exhibited angiogenic signatures, which may represent early signs of aberrant angiogenesis. These alterations may help to identify biomarkers for disease progression or signaling pathways amenable to early intervention.

  7. Proximal tubule ribosome profiling during kidney fibrosis reveals pro-inflammatory and lncRNA expression patterns with sexual dimorphism (in press)

    Wu, H.; Lai, C.; Chang-Panesso, M.; Humphreys, Benjamin D. J Am Soc Nephrol. 2019.

  8. Comparative Analysis and Refinement of Human PSC-Derived Kidney Organoid Differentiation with Single-Cell Transcriptomics

    Wu, H; Uchimura, K; Donnelly, E.L.; Kirita, Y; Morris, S.A.; Humphreys, B.D. Cell Stem Cell. November 2018.

    Kidney organoids derived from human pluripotent stem cells have great utility for investigating organogenesis and disease mechanisms and, potentially, as a replacement tissue source, but how closely organoids derived from current protocols replicate adult human kidney is undefined. We compared two directed differentiation protocols by single-cell transcriptomics of 83,130 cells from 65 organoids with single-cell transcriptomes of fetal and adult kidney cells. Both protocols generate a diverse range of kidney cells with differing ratios, but organoid-derived cell types are immature, and 10%?20% of cells are non-renal. Reconstructing lineage relationships by pseudotemporal ordering identified ligands, receptors, and transcription factor networks associated with fate decisions. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and its cognate receptor NTRK2 were expressed in the neuronal lineage during organoid differentiation. Inhibiting this pathway improved organoid formation by reducing neurons by 90% without affecting kidney differentiation, highlighting the power of single-cell technologies to characterize and improve organoid differentiation.

  9. A conditionally immortalized Gli1-positive kidney mesenchymal cell line models myofibroblast transition

    Ó hAinmhire, E; Wu, H; Muto, Y; Donnelly, EL; Machado, FG; Fan, LX; Chang-Panesso, M; Humphreys, BD. Am. J. Physiol. Renal Physiol.. October 2018.

    Gli1-positive resident mesenchymal stem cell-like cells are the predominant source of kidney myofibroblasts in fibrosis but investigating Gli1-positive myofibroblast progenitor activation is hampered by the difficulty of isolating and propagating primary cultures of these cells. Using a genetic strategy with positive and negative selection, we isolated Kidney-Gli1 (KG1) cells that maintain expression of appropriate mesenchymal stem cell-like cell markers, respond to hedgehog pathway activation and display robust myofibroblast differentiation upon treatment with TGFb. Co-culture of KG1 cells with endothelium stabilizes capillary formation. Single cell RNA-sequencing (scRNA-seq) analysis during differentiation identified autocrine ligand-receptor pair upregulation and a strong focal adhesion pathway signal. This led us to test the serum response factor inhibitor CCG-203971 which potently inhibited TGFb-induced pericyte to myofibroblast transition. scRNA-seq also identified the unexpected upregulation of nerve growth factor (NGF) which we confirmed in two mouse kidney fibrosis models. The Ngf receptor Ntrk1 is expressed in tubular epithelium in vivo, suggesting a novel interstitial to tubule paracrine signaling axis. Thus KG1 cells accurately model myofibroblast activation in vitro, and the development of this cell line provides a new tool to study resident mesenchymal stem cell-like progenitors in health and disease.

  10. FoxM1 drives proximal tubule proliferation during repair from acute kidney injury

    Chang-Panesso, Monica; Kadyrov, Farid F.; Lalli, Matthew; Wu, Haojia; Ikeda, Shiyo; Kobayashi, Akio; Humphreys, Benjamin D. bioRxiv. 2018.

    The proximal tubule has a remarkable capacity for repair after acute injury but the cellular lineage and molecular mechanisms underlying this repair response have been poorly characterized. Here, we developed a Kim-1-GFPCreERt2 knockin mouse line (Kim-1-GCE), performed genetic lineage analysis after injury and measured the cellular transcriptome of proximal tubule during repair. Acutely injured genetically labeled clones co-expressed Kim-1, Vimentin, Sox9 and Ki67, indicating a dedifferentiated and proliferative state. Clonal analysis revealed clonal expansion of Kim-1+ cells, indicating that acutely injured, dedifferentiated proximal tubule cells account for repair rather than a fixed tubular progenitor. Translational profiling during injury and repair revealed signatures of both successful and unsuccessful maladaptive repair. The transcription factor FoxM1 was induced early in injury, was required for epithelial proliferation, and was dependent on epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) stimulation. In conclusion, dedifferentiated proximal tubule cells effect proximal tubule repair and we reveal a novel EGFR-FoxM1-dependent signaling pathway that drives proliferative repair after injury.

  11. Single-Cell Transcriptomics of a Human Kidney Allograft Biopsy Specimen Defines a Diverse Inflammatory Response

    Wu, H; Malone, AF; Donnelly, EL; Kirita, Y; Uchimura, K; Ramakrishnan, SM; Gaut, JP; Humphreys, BD. JASN. 29(8):2069–2080. May 2018.

    Background Single-cell genomics techniques are revolutionizing our ability to characterize complex tissues. By contrast, the techniques used to analyze renal biopsy specimens have changed little over several decades. We tested the hypothesis that single-cell RNA-sequencing can comprehensively describe cell types and states in a human kidney biopsy specimen. Methods We generated 8746 single-cell transcriptomes from a healthy adult kidney and a single kidney transplant biopsy core by single-cell RNA-sequencing. Unsupervised clustering analysis of the biopsy specimen was performed to identify 16 distinct cell types, including all of the major immune cell types and most native kidney cell types, in this biopsy specimen, for which the histologic read was mixed rejection. Results Monocytes formed two subclusters representing a nonclassical CD16+ group and a classic CD16− group expressing dendritic cell maturation markers. The presence of both monocyte cell subtypes was validated by staining of independent transplant biopsy specimens. Comparison of healthy kidney epithelial transcriptomes with biopsy specimen counterparts identified novel segment-specific proinflammatory responses in rejection. Endothelial cells formed three distinct subclusters: resting cells and two activated endothelial cell groups. One activated endothelial cell group expressed Fc receptor pathway activation and Ig internalization genes, consistent with the pathologic diagnosis of antibody-mediated rejection. We mapped previously defined genes that associate with rejection outcomes to single cell types and generated a searchable online gene expression database. Conclusions We present the first step toward incorporation of single-cell transcriptomics into kidney biopsy specimen interpretation, describe a heterogeneous immune response in mixed rejection, and provide a searchable resource for the scientific community.

  12. Bringing Renal Biopsy Interpretation Into the Molecular Age With Single-Cell RNA Sequencing

    Malone, AF; Wu, H; Humphreys, BD. Semin Nephrol. January 2018.

    The renal biopsy provides critical diagnostic and prognostic information to clinicians including cases of acute kidney injury, chronic kidney disease, and allograft dysfunction. Today, biopsy specimens are read using a combination of light microscopy, electron microscopy, and indirect immunofluorescence, with a limited number of antibodies. These techniques all were perfected decades ago with only incremental changes since then. By contrast, recent advances in single-cell genomics are transforming scientists’ ability to characterize cells. Rather than measure the expression of several genes at a time by immunofluorescence, it now is possible to measure the expression of thousands of genes in thousands of single cells simultaneously. Here, we argue that the development of single-cell RNA sequencing offers an opportunity to describe human kidney disease comprehensively at a cellular level. It is particularly well suited for the analysis of immune cells, which are characterized by multiple subtypes and changing functions depending on their environment. In this review, we summarize the development of single-cell RNA sequencing methodologies. We discuss how these approaches are being applied in other organs, and the potential for this powerful technology to transform our understanding of kidney disease once applied to the renal biopsy.

  13. The promise of single-cell RNA sequencing for kidney disease investigation

    Wu, H; Humphreys, Benjamin D. Kidney International. 92(6):1334–1342. December 2017.

    Recent techniques for single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) at high throughput are leading to profound new discoveries in biology. The ability to generate vast amounts of transcriptomic data at cellular resolution represents a transformative advance, allowing the identification of novel cell types, states, and dynamics. In this review, we summarize the development of scRNA-seq methodologies and highlight their advantages and drawbacks. We discuss available software tools for analyzing scRNA-Seq data and summarize current computational challenges. Finally, we outline ways in which this powerful technology might be applied to discovery research in kidney development and disease.

  14. (Re)Building a Kidney.

    Oxburgh, L; Carroll, TJ; Cleaver, O; Gossett, DR; Hoshizaki, DK; Hubbell, JA; Humphreys, BD; Jain, S; Jensen, J; Kaplan, DL; Kesselman, C; Ketchum, CJ; Little, MH; McMahon, AP; Shankland, SJ; Spence, JR; Valerius, MT; Wertheim, JA; Wessely, O; Zheng, Y; Drummond, IA. J Am Soc Nephrol. 28(5):1370–1378. May 2017.

    (Re)Building a Kidney is a National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases-led consortium to optimize approaches for the isolation, expansion, and differentiation of appropriate kidney cell types and the integration of these cells into complex structures that replicate human kidney function. The ultimate goals of the consortium are two-fold: to develop and implement strategies for in vitro engineering of replacement kidney tissue, and to devise strategies to stimulate regeneration of nephrons in situ to restore failing kidney function. Projects within the consortium will answer fundamental questions regarding human gene expression in the developing kidney, essential signaling crosstalk between distinct cell types of the developing kidney, how to derive the many cell types of the kidney through directed differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells, which bioengineering or scaffolding strategies have the most potential for kidney tissue formation, and basic parameters of the regenerative response to injury. As these projects progress, the consortium will incorporate systematic investigations in physiologic function of in vitro and in vivo differentiated kidney tissue, strategies for engraftment in experimental animals, and development of therapeutic approaches to activate innate reparative responses.

  15. Gli1+ Pericyte Loss Induces Capillary Rarefaction and Proximal Tubular Injury.

    Kramann, Rafael; Wongboonsin, Janewit; Chang-Panesso, Monica; Machado, Flavia G; Humphreys, Benjamin D. J Am Soc Nephrol. 2017.

    Peritubular capillary rarefaction is hypothesized to contribute to the increased risk of future CKD after AKI. Here, we directly tested the role of Gli1+ kidney pericytes in the maintenance of peritubular capillary health, and the consequences of pericyte loss during injury. Using bigenic Gli1-CreERt2; R26tdTomato reporter mice, we observed increased distance between Gli1+ pericytes and endothelial cells after AKI (mean6 SEM: 3.360.1 mm before injury versus 12.560.2 mm after injury; P,0.001). Using a genetic ablation model, we asked whether pericyte loss alone is sufficient for capillary destabilization. Ten days after pericyte ablation, we observed endothelial cell damage by electron microscopy. Furthermore, pericyte loss led to significantly reduced capillary number at later time points (mean6SEM capillaries/high-power field: 67.664.7 in control versus 44.164.8 at 56 days; P,0.05) and increased cross-sectional area (mean6 SEM: 21.960.4 mm2 in control versus 24.160.6 mm2 at 10 days; P,0.01 and 24.66 0.6 mm2 at 56 days; P,0.001). Pericyte ablation also led to hypoxic focal and subclinical tubular injury, reflected by transient expression of Kim1 and vimentin in scattered proximal tubule segments. This analysis provides direct evidence that AKI causes pericyte detachment from capillaries, and that pericyte loss is sufficient to trigger transient tubular injury and permanent peritubular capillary rarefaction.

  16. Comparative analysis of kidney organoid and adult human kidney single cell and single nucleus transcriptomes

    Wu, Haojia; Uchimura, Kohei; Donnelly, Erinn; Kirita, Yuhei; Morris, Samantha A; Humphreys, Benjamin D. bioRxiv. January 2017.

    Kidney organoids differentiated from human pluripotent stem cells hold great promise for understanding organogenesis, modeling disease and ultimately as a source of replacement tissue. Realizing the full potential of this technology will require better differentiation strategies based upon knowledge of the cellular diversity and differentiation state of all cells within these organoids. Here we analyze single cell gene expression in 45,227 cells isolated from 23 organoids differentiated using two different protocols. Both generate kidney organoids that contain a diverse range of kidney cells at differing ratios as well as non-renal cell types. We quantified the differentiation state of major organoid kidney cell types by comparing them against a 4,259 single nucleus RNA-seq dataset generated from adult human kidney, revealing immaturity of all kidney organoid cell types. We reconstructed lineage relationships during organoid differentiation through pseudotemporal ordering, and identified transcription factor networks associated with fate decisions. These results define impressive kidney organoid cell diversity, identify incomplete differentiation as a major roadblock for current directed differentiation protocols and provide a human adult kidney snRNA-seq dataset against which to benchmark future progress.

  17. A Plumbing Solution for Stem Cell-Derived Kidneys

    Ó\hAinmhire, Eoghainín; Humphreys, Benjamin D. Transplantation. 100(1):3–4. January 2016.