Septic acute kidney injury (AKI) associates with poor survival rates and often requires renal replacement therapy. Glucocorticoids may pose renal protective effects in sepsis via stimulation of mitochondrial function. Therefore, we studied the mitochondrial effects of dexamethasone in an experimental inflammatory proximal tubule epithelial cell model. Treatment of human proximal tubule epithelial cells with lipopolysaccharide (LPS) closely resembles pathophysiological processes during endotoxaemia, and led to increased cytokine excretion rates and cellular reactive oxygen species levels, combined with a reduced mitochondrial membrane potential and respiratory capacity. These effects were attenuated by dexamethasone. Dexamethasone specifically increased the expression and activity of mitochondrial complex V (CV), which could not be explained by an increase in mitochondrial mass. Finally, we demonstrated that dexamethasone acidified the intracellular milieu and consequently reversed LPS-induced alkalisation, leading to restoration of the mitochondrial function. This acidification also provides an explanation for the increase in CV expression, which is expected to compensate for the inhibitory effect of the acidified environment on this complex. Besides the mechanistic insights into the beneficial effects of dexamethasone during renal cellular inflammation, our work also supports a key role for mitochondria in this process and, hence, provides novel therapeutic avenues for the treatment of AKI.
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