Urinary N-acetyl-beta-D-glucosaminidase (NAG) had been shown to be a useful early marker of renal injury. In workers exposed to lead it seems to be the only early marker but the dose response and dose effect relations are weak. Furthermore, the significance and underlying mechanism of increased urinary NAG activity is far from clear. By studying the isoenzyme profiles of urinary NAG, the significance and underlying mechanism may be further clarified. The heat labile (NAG-A) and heat stable (NAG-B) isoenzyme profiles of 128 workers exposed to lead from a lead stabiliser factory were analysed. NAG activity was expressed as total NAG, NAG-A, and NAG-B activity as well as ratios (NAG-B/total NAG and NAG-B/NAG-A). Exposure indices included the recent concentration of blood lead (BPb), a cumulative blood lead index (TBPb), and the recent change in concentration of blood lead (CBPb). The NAG indices correlated best with CBPb. Nearly 50% of the variation in NAG-B activity could be explained by the combination of all three exposure indices but only the CBPb was highly significant. When these exposure indices were entered separately into the regression equation, CBPb accounted for 36.3% of the variation in NAG-B activity, 5.7% was accounted for by TBPb and 2.7% by BPb. There was also no dose-effect or dose-response relation between the NAG variables and BPb or TBPb groups. With CBPb, there were dose-effect and dose-response relations. With CBPb, there was an increase in NAG variables in the group with more than 25% increase in blood lead over the past six months. The increase in NAG activity in this study is likely to be due to a recent increase in concentration of blood lead and hence presumably a recent rise in renal burden of inorganic lead. This suggests that the increase in urinary NAG activity is a form of acute response to a sharp increase in renal burden of lead, rather than to a cumulative dose. Heat stable NAG is part of the lysosomal membrane and is present in the urine when there is breakdown of lysosomes. Our data therefore contradict suggestions that the increase in urinary NAG activity is due to exocytosis.
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