BACKGROUND All-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) has antiproliferative and anti-inflammatory effects and is currently used in the treatment of leukemia and dermatologic diseases. We tested the therapeutic potential of ATRA on anti-glomerular basement membrane (GBM) glomerulonephritis rats. METHODS Glomerulonephritis was induced in male Wistar-Kyoto rats on day 0 by an intravenous injection of antirat GBM antibody. On day 14 after the induction of anti-GBM glomerulonephritis, some rats were sacrificed (N = 5). Another 10 rats were divided into two groups: the vehicle group (N = 5) and the ATRA treated group (N = 5). ATRA was orally administrated from day 14 to day 27 after disease induction. Blood pressure, body weight, urinary protein excretion, and blood chemistry was determined on days 1, 14, 21, and 27. Kidney samples were obtained on day 28. The kidneys were examined with periodic acid-Schiff staining (PAS) and immunohistochemistry using antibodies against the proliferative cell nuclear antigen (PCNA), rat monocyte and macrophage (ED-1), and alpha-smooth muscle actin (alpha-SMA). Glomerular RNA was extracted from isolated glomeruli, and reverse transcription (RT) followed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was performed. RESULTS ATRA administration produced a 55% reduction of proteinuria in glomerulonephritis rats. Light microscopic analysis revealed severe necrosis/crescent formation (>50% of the glomerulus) affecting 34% of glomeruli in vehicle rats, whereas ATRA treatment reduced the glomeruli showing severe change to 14%. ATRA also significantly reduced PCNA-positive cells, ED-1-positive cells and alpha-SMA-positive area in the glomeruli. RT-PCR analyses revealed that a wide variety of genes including inflammation related [tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta), and CCAAT enhancer-binding protein delta (C/EBPdelta)], cell proliferation-related [platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF)] and fibrosis-related [transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-beta1), type I collagen, and alpha-SMA) genes were suppressed in the glomeruli of ATRA-treated rats. CONCLUSION ATRA administration significantly reduced severe necrosis/crescent formation and urinary protein excretion in glomerulonephritis rats. Suppression of a wide variety of gene expression may partly explain the mechanism of ATRA's antiproliferative and anti-inflammatory effects. These data suggest a novel therapeutic application of ATRA toward glomerulonephritis.