Evidence suggesting that the minimal functional unit of a renal cystine transporter is a heterodimer and its implications in cystinuria
Cystinuria, one of the most common genetic disorders, is characterized by excessive excretion of cystine and basic amino acids in urine. The low solubility of cystine results in formation of kidney stones which can eventually lead to renal failure. Three types of cystinurias have been described. All involve defects in a high-affinity transport system for cystine in the brush border membranes of kidney and intestinal epithelial cells. The molecular properties of proteins involved in epithelial cystine transport are incompletely understood. A protein (NBAT, neutral and basic amino acid transporter), initially cloned by us from rat kidney and shown to be localized in the renal and intestinal brush border membranes, has been implicated in this transport, and mutations in human NBAT gene have been found in several cystinurics, making it a prime candidate for a cystinuria gene. However, mutations in NBAT were found only in Type I cystinurics and not in Types II and III suggesting that defects in other, as yet uncharacterized, genes may also be involved. NBAT has an unusual (for an amino acid transporter) membrane topology. We proposed that the protein contains four membrane-spanning domains, a model disputed by other investigators. We subsequently obtained experimental data consistent with a four membrane-spanning domain model. Furthermore, recently we showed that kidney and intestinal NBAT (85kDa) is associated with another brush border membrane protein (about 50kDa) and have proposed that the heterodimer represents the minimal functional unit of the high-affinity cystine transporter in these membranes. These findings raise the tantalizing possibilities that defects in the NBAT-associated protein might account for cystinurias in individuals with normal NBAT gene (such as the Types II and III cystinurics).