Vitamin E treatment has been found to be beneficial in preventing or reducing diabetic nephropathy. Increased tissue calcium and abnormal microsomal Ca(2+)-ATPase activity have been suggested as contributing factors in the development of diabetic nephropathy. This study was undertaken to test the hypothesis that vitamin E reduces lipid peroxidation and can prevent the abnormalities in microsomal Ca(2+)-ATPase activity and calcium levels in kidney of streptozotocin (STZ)-induced diabetic rats. Male rats were rendered diabetic by a single STZ injection (55 mg x kg(-1) i.p.). After diabetes was verified, diabetic and age-matched control rats were untreated or treated with vitamin E (400-500 IU kg(-1) x day(-1), orally) for 10 weeks. Ca(2+)-ATPase activity and lipid peroxidation (MDA) were determined spectrophotometrically. Blood glucose levels increased approximately five-fold (> 500 mg x dl(-1)) in untreated-diabetic rats but decreased to 340+/-27 mg x dl(-1) in the vitamin E treated-diabetic group. Kidney MDA levels did not significantly change in the diabetic state. However, vitamin E treatment markedly inhibited MDA levels in both control and diabetic animals. Ca(2+)-ATPase activity was 0.483+/-0.008 U l(-1) in the control group and significantly increased to 0.754+/-0.010 U l(-1) in the STZ-diabetic group (p < 0.001). Vitamin E treatment completely prevented the diabetes-induced increase in Ca(2+)-ATPase activity (0.307+/-0.025 U l(-1), p < 0.001) and also reduced the enzyme activity in normal control rats. STZ-diabetes resulted in approximately two-fold increase in total calcium content of kidney. Vitamin E treatment led to a significant reduction in kidney calcium levels of both control and diabetic animals (p < 0.001). Thus, vitamin E treatment can lower blood glucose and lipid peroxidation, which in turn prevents the abnormalities in kidney calcium metabolism of diabetic rats. This study describes a potential biochemical mechanism by which vitamin E supplementation may delay or inhibit the development of cellular damage and nephropathy in diabetes.