Identification and investigation of rare patients with extreme forms of high and low blood pressure has led to the identification of specific genes whose mutation results in these outlier phenotypes. These rare mutations converge on genes that mediate or regulate the renal reabsorption of Na-Cl. Mutations that increase or decrease renal salt reabsorption respectively increase or decrease blood pressure. Mutations that cause hypertension include gain of function mutations in subunits of the epithelial Na+ channel (ENaC) and in any of eight genes that cause constitutive activity of ENaC by its stimulation via its major regulator, the mineralocorticoid receptor, the target of aldosterone signaling; these increase salt reabsorption in the distal nephron. Conversely, mutations that cause hypotension include loss of function mutations in ENaC subunits, but also mutations the thiazide-sensitive Na-Cl cotransporter (NCC) or a K+ channel required for cotransporter function that act in the distal convoluted tubule (DCT), or mutations in the Na-K-2Cl cotransporter as well as K+ and Cl- channels expressed in the thick ascending limb of Henle that are required for normal Na-Cl reabsorption in this nephron segment. ENaC, the Na-Cl cotransporter and the Na-K-2Cl cotransporter, as well as the mineralocorticoid receptor are all commonly used targets for treatment of hypertension and/or diuresis.
In addition to these genes, genetic studies also identified a previously unrecognized pathway that regulates the balance between renal salt reabsorption and K+ secretion. Mutations in the kinases WNK1 or WNK4, or genes that mediate their degradation via ubiquitylation, CUL3 and KLHL3 cause hypertension with hyperkalemia. Activity of WNK1 and WNK4 stimulates activation of NCC promoting Na-Cl reabsorption in the DCT, reducing Na-Cl- delivery distally, thereby limiting ENaC activity and limiting K+ secretion in the distal nephron. Conversely, hyperkalemia inhibits WNK activity, promoting distal Na-Cl delivery and maximizing K+ secretion. Angiotensin II signaling promotes WNK activity, increasing Na-Cl reabsorption in the DCT and inhibiting K+ secretion, while hyperkalemia appears to inhibit WNK activity, providing distal Na+ delivery that is used to drive K+ secretion.
The importance of this pathway is that it can explain the mechanism by which increased dietary K+ lowers blood pressure. Both reduced dietary salt intake and increased dietary K+ can reduce blood pressure in controlled settings, and recent large population studies have shown that increased dietary K+ and reduced Na-Cl intake not only lower blood pressure but reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and death.