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Lithium may increase risk for kidney failure, study says

By Tauren Dyson
A transmission electron microscopic picture of the filtration barrier of the kidney. Photo by Richard Coward
A transmission electron microscopic picture of the filtration barrier of the kidney. Photo by Richard Coward

Jan. 24 (UPI) -- A popular treatment for bipolar disorder may also cause kidney problems, a new study says.

Lithium use has been shown to suppress a certain enzyme that protects the kidneys from failure, according to a study published Thursday in Nature Communications, raising concern about a commonly used, effective method of treatment.

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That enzyme, known as GSK3, keeps protein from spilling into the urine, which stops kidney failure, the researchers say. This enzyme is important in helping the kidney filter blood.

People who take lithium at high doses or for an extended period of time to treat mental health illness could have this enzyme pushed down to unhealthy levels. This can lead to kidney dialysis or kidney transplantation, researchers say.

"We think that patients who are taking lithium treatment now should regularly have a simple urine test to measure the amount of albumin they are excreting, as too much albumin is a sign of kidney disease," lead author Richard Coward, a professor of renal medicine and consultant pediatric nephrologist at Bristol Medical School, said in a news release.

In the past, pharmaceutical companies have pushed to create more GSK3 inhibitors to treat Alzheimer's disease, cancer and diabetes.

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Also, other studies have pointed to GSK3 inhibitors as a way to actually fight kidney disease.

So now researchers of the current study are asking drug companies to produce medications that don't tamp down the amount of GSK3 in the body to dangerous levels.

"If these patients have increased levels of protein in their urine, they should consider reducing their dose of their lithium or switching medications. We think this could prevent some of them from developing kidney failure," Coward said. "Our research further suggests that it would be sensible to try and develop drugs that selectively inhibit one of the two forms of GSK3."

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