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Genetics of Renal Cell Carcinoma

Inheritance and Risk of Renal Cell Carcinoma

Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is among the more commonly diagnosed cancers in both men and women. In the United States in 2021, about 76,080 cases of kidney cancer and renal pelvis cancer are expected to occur and lead to an estimated 13,780 deaths.[1] This cancer accounts for about 4% of all adult malignancies.[1] The male-to-female ratio is 1.9:1.[2] RCC is distinct from kidney cancer that involves the renal pelvis or renal medulla, and it only applies to cancer that forms in the lining of the kidney bed (i.e., in the renal tubules). Non-RCCs of the kidney, including cancer of the renal pelvis or renal medulla, are not addressed in this summary. Genetic pathogenic variants have been identified as the cause of inherited cancer risk in some RCC-prone families; these pathogenic variants are estimated to account for only 5% to 8% of RCC cases overall.[3,4] It is likely that other undiscovered genes and background genetic factors contribute to the development of familial RCC in conjunction with nongenetic risk factors.

RCC occurs in both sporadic and heritable forms. The following four major autosomal dominantly inherited RCC syndromes have been identified. PDQ summaries are available for each of these syndromes:

(Refer to the PDQ summaries on Renal Cell Cancer Treatment and Transitional Cell Cancer of the Renal Pelvis and Ureter Treatment for more information about sporadic kidney cancer.)

Natural History of Renal Cell Carcinoma

The natural history of each RCC syndrome is distinct and influenced by several factors, including histologic features and underlying genetic alterations. Although it is useful to follow the predominant reported natural history of each syndrome, each affected individual will need to be evaluated and monitored for occasional individual variations. The individual prognosis will depend upon the characteristics of the renal tumor at the time of detection and intervention, and will differ for each syndrome (VHL, HLRCC, HPRC, and BHD). Prognostic determinants at diagnosis include the stage of the RCC, whether the tumor is confined to the kidney, primary tumor size, Fuhrman nuclear grade, and multifocality.[5-7]

Family History as a Risk Factor for Renal Cell Carcinoma

RCC accounts for about 4% of all adult malignancies in the United States.[8] Epidemiologic studies of RCC suggest that a family history of RCC is a risk factor for the disease.[4,9,10] An analysis of renal carcinomas diagnosed before the year 2000 in the Sweden Family-Cancer Database included all Swedes born since 1931 and their biological parents. The study observed that risk of RCC was particularly high in the siblings of those affected with RCC. The higher relative risk (RR) in siblings than in parent-child pairs suggests that a recessive gene contributes to the development of sporadic renal carcinoma.[9] Investigators studied all patients in Iceland who developed RCC between 1955 and 1999 (1,078 cases). In addition, they used an extensive computerized database to perform a unique genealogic study that included more than 600,000 Icelandic individuals. The results revealed that nearly 60% of RCC patients in Iceland during this time had either a first-degree relative or a second-degree relative with RCC, with an estimated RR of 2.5 for a sibling of an RCC-affected patient.[4] A study that evaluated 80,309 monozygotic twin individuals and 123,382 same-sex dizygotic twin individuals in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden found an excess cancer risk in twins whose co-twin was diagnosed with cancer.[10] The estimated cumulative risks were an absolute 5% higher (95% confidence interval [CI], 4%–6%) in dizygotic twins (37%; 95% CI, 36%–38%) and an absolute 14% higher (95% CI, 12%–16%) in monozygotic twins (46%; 95% CI, 44%–48%)—for twins whose co-twin also developed cancer—than that in the overall cohort (32%). Overall heritability of cancer, calculated by assessing the relative contribution of heredity versus shared environment, was estimated to be 33%. Heritability of kidney cancer was estimated to be 38% (95% CI, 21%–55%), with shared environmental factors not showing a significant contribution to overall risk.

Young age at onset is also a clue to possible hereditary etiology. In contrast with sporadic RCC, which is generally diagnosed during the fifth to seventh decades of life, hereditary forms of kidney cancer are generally diagnosed at an earlier age. In a review from the National Cancer Institute of over 600 cases of hereditary kidney cancer, the median age at diagnosis was 37 years, with 70% of the cases being diagnosed at age 46 years or younger,[3] compared with a median age at diagnosis of 64 years in the overall population.[11] Bilaterality and multifocality are common in most heritable RCCs. A retrospective analysis of 1,235 patients with RCC who underwent genetic testing revealed that 6.1% of this population had positive genetic test results, 75.5% had negative test results, and 18.4% had a variant of unknown significance. The only variable associated with a positive test result was younger age at diagnosis of RCC.[12]

There is no consensus regarding whom to refer for genetic consultation for a possible hereditary kidney cancer syndrome, although the following organizations have offered guidance:

  • American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics and the National Society of Genetic Counselors.[13]
  • VHL Alliance.
  • Kidney Cancer Research Network of Canada.[14]

Other Risk Factors for Renal Cell Carcinoma

Studies of environmental and lifestyle factors contributing to the risk of RCC focus almost exclusively on sporadic (i.e., nonhereditary) RCC. Smoking, hypertension, and obesity are the major environmental and lifestyle risk factors associated with RCC.[15] In addition, workers who were reportedly exposed to the environmental carcinogen trichloroethylene developed sporadic clear cell RCC, presumably resulting from somatic mutations in the VHL gene.[16] Dietary intake of vegetables and fruits has been inversely associated with RCC. Greater intake of red meat and milk products have been associated with increased RCC risk, although not consistently.[17]

  1. American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2021. American Cancer Society, 2021. Available online. Last accessed June 02, 2021.
  2. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, et al., eds.: DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Wolters Kluwer, 2019.
  3. Shuch B, Vourganti S, Ricketts CJ, et al.: Defining early-onset kidney cancer: implications for germline and somatic mutation testing and clinical management. J Clin Oncol 32 (5): 431-7, 2014. [PUBMED Abstract]
  4. Gudbjartsson T, Jónasdóttir TJ, Thoroddsen A, et al.: A population-based familial aggregation analysis indicates genetic contribution in a majority of renal cell carcinomas. Int J Cancer 100 (4): 476-9, 2002. [PUBMED Abstract]
  5. Vira MA, Novakovic KR, Pinto PA, et al.: Genetic basis of kidney cancer: a model for developing molecular-targeted therapies. BJU Int 99 (5 Pt B): 1223-9, 2007. [PUBMED Abstract]
  6. Choyke PL, Glenn GM, Walther MM, et al.: Hereditary renal cancers. Radiology 226 (1): 33-46, 2003. [PUBMED Abstract]
  7. Zbar B, Glenn G, Merino M, et al.: Familial renal carcinoma: clinical evaluation, clinical subtypes and risk of renal carcinoma development. J Urol 177 (2): 461-5; discussion 465, 2007. [PUBMED Abstract]
  8. Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A: Cancer statistics, 2016. CA Cancer J Clin 66 (1): 7-30, 2016 Jan-Feb. [PUBMED Abstract]
  9. Hemminki K, Li X: Familial risks of cancer as a guide to gene identification and mode of inheritance. Int J Cancer 110 (2): 291-4, 2004. [PUBMED Abstract]
  10. Mucci LA, Hjelmborg JB, Harris JR, et al.: Familial Risk and Heritability of Cancer Among Twins in Nordic Countries. JAMA 315 (1): 68-76, 2016. [PUBMED Abstract]
  11. National Cancer Institute: SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Kidney and Renal Pelvis Cancer. Bethesda, Md: National Cancer Institute. Available online. Last accessed November 06, 2020.
  12. Nguyen KA, Syed JS, Espenschied CR, et al.: Advances in the diagnosis of hereditary kidney cancer: Initial results of a multigene panel test. Cancer 123 (22): 4363-4371, 2017. [PUBMED Abstract]
  13. Hampel H, Bennett RL, Buchanan A, et al.: A practice guideline from the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics and the National Society of Genetic Counselors: referral indications for cancer predisposition assessment. Genet Med 17 (1): 70-87, 2015. [PUBMED Abstract]
  14. Reaume MN, Graham GE, Tomiak E, et al.: Canadian guideline on genetic screening for hereditary renal cell cancers. Can Urol Assoc J 7 (9-10): 319-23, 2013 Sep-Oct. [PUBMED Abstract]
  15. McLaughlin JK, Lipworth L: Epidemiologic aspects of renal cell cancer. Semin Oncol 27 (2): 115-23, 2000. [PUBMED Abstract]
  16. Brauch H, Weirich G, Hornauer MA, et al.: Trichloroethylene exposure and specific somatic mutations in patients with renal cell carcinoma. J Natl Cancer Inst 91 (10): 854-61, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
  17. Chow WH, Devesa SS: Contemporary epidemiology of renal cell cancer. Cancer J 14 (5): 288-301, 2008 Sep-Oct. [PUBMED Abstract]

Major Heritable Renal Cell Carcinoma Syndromes

Four major heritable renal cell carcinoma (RCC) syndromes (von Hippel-Lindau disease [VHL], hereditary leiomyomatosis and renal cell cancer [HLRCC], hereditary papillary renal carcinoma [HPRC], and Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome [BHD]) with autosomal dominant inheritance are listed in Table 1, along with their susceptibility genes. These syndromes are summarized in detail in the following PDQ summaries:

Table 1. Hereditary Renal Cell Cancer (RCC) Syndromes and Susceptibility Genes
Syndrome (Inheritance Pattern) Gene Locus, Gene Type (Protein) Renal Tumor Pathology Cumulative Cancer Risk Nonrenal Tumors and Associated Abnormalities
AD = autosomal dominant; ccRCC = clear cell renal cell carcinoma; CNS = central nervous system.
von Hippel-Lindau disease (VHL) (AD) [1,2] VHL 3p26, tumor suppressor (pVHL) ccRCC (multifocal) 24%–45% CNS hemangioblastoma, retinal hemangioblastomas, pheochromocytoma, pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, endolymphatic sac tumor, cystadenoma of the pancreas, the epididymis, and the broad ligament
Hereditary leiomyomatosis and renal cell cancer (HLRCC) (AD) [3-6] FH 1q42.1, tumor suppressor (fumarate hydratase) HLRCC-associated RCC Up to 32% Cutaneous leiomyomas, uterine leiomyomas (fibroids)
Hereditary papillary renal carcinoma (HPRC) (AD) [7,8] MET 7q34, proto-oncogene (hepatocyte growth factor receptor) Papillary type 1 Approaching 100% None known
Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome (BHD) (AD) [9-12] FLCN 17p11.2, tumor suppressor (folliculin) Hybrid oncocytic, chromophobe, oncocytoma, papillary, clear cell 15%–30% Cutaneous: fibrofolliculomas/ trichodiscomas
Pulmonary: lung cysts, spontaneous pneumothoraces

Autosomal dominant mode of inheritance is the pattern of transmission reported within the families affected by these major RCC syndromes. Autosomal dominant means that it is sufficient for the altered gene to be present in one of the parents and that the chances of transmitting this gene and the disease to the offspring is 50% for each pregnancy. Genetic tests performed in Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA)-certified laboratories are available for the genes associated with VHL, HLRCC, HPRC, and BHD. Genetic counseling is a prerequisite for genetic testing. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Cancer Genetics Risk Assessment and Counseling for more information.)

  1. Choyke PL, Glenn GM, Walther MM, et al.: von Hippel-Lindau disease: genetic, clinical, and imaging features. Radiology 194 (3): 629-42, 1995. [PUBMED Abstract]
  2. Lonser RR, Glenn GM, Walther M, et al.: von Hippel-Lindau disease. Lancet 361 (9374): 2059-67, 2003. [PUBMED Abstract]
  3. Launonen V, Vierimaa O, Kiuru M, et al.: Inherited susceptibility to uterine leiomyomas and renal cell cancer. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 98 (6): 3387-92, 2001. [PUBMED Abstract]
  4. Alam NA, Olpin S, Leigh IM: Fumarate hydratase mutations and predisposition to cutaneous leiomyomas, uterine leiomyomas and renal cancer. Br J Dermatol 153 (1): 11-7, 2005. [PUBMED Abstract]
  5. Toro JR, Nickerson ML, Wei MH, et al.: Mutations in the fumarate hydratase gene cause hereditary leiomyomatosis and renal cell cancer in families in North America. Am J Hum Genet 73 (1): 95-106, 2003. [PUBMED Abstract]
  6. Wei MH, Toure O, Glenn GM, et al.: Novel mutations in FH and expansion of the spectrum of phenotypes expressed in families with hereditary leiomyomatosis and renal cell cancer. J Med Genet 43 (1): 18-27, 2006. [PUBMED Abstract]
  7. Schmidt L, Duh FM, Chen F, et al.: Germline and somatic mutations in the tyrosine kinase domain of the MET proto-oncogene in papillary renal carcinomas. Nat Genet 16 (1): 68-73, 1997. [PUBMED Abstract]
  8. Schmidt LS, Nickerson ML, Angeloni D, et al.: Early onset hereditary papillary renal carcinoma: germline missense mutations in the tyrosine kinase domain of the met proto-oncogene. J Urol 172 (4 Pt 1): 1256-61, 2004. [PUBMED Abstract]
  9. Toro JR, Wei MH, Glenn GM, et al.: BHD mutations, clinical and molecular genetic investigations of Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome: a new series of 50 families and a review of published reports. J Med Genet 45 (6): 321-31, 2008. [PUBMED Abstract]
  10. Toro JR, Glenn G, Duray P, et al.: Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome: a novel marker of kidney neoplasia. Arch Dermatol 135 (10): 1195-202, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
  11. Zbar B, Alvord WG, Glenn G, et al.: Risk of renal and colonic neoplasms and spontaneous pneumothorax in the Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 11 (4): 393-400, 2002. [PUBMED Abstract]
  12. Pavlovich CP, Walther MM, Eyler RA, et al.: Renal tumors in the Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome. Am J Surg Pathol 26 (12): 1542-52, 2002. [PUBMED Abstract]

Changes to This Summary (03/11/2021)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

This summary was extensively revised.

This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Cancer Genetics Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ® - NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.

About This PDQ Summary

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the genetics of renal cell carcinoma. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.

Reviewers and Updates

This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Cancer Genetics Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:

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Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.

The lead reviewers for Genetics of Renal Cell Carcinoma are:

  • Thai H. Ho, MD, PhD (Mayo Clinic)
  • Brian Matthew Shuch, MD (UCLA Health)
  • Ramaprasad Srinivasan, MD, PhD (National Cancer Institute)

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PDQ® Cancer Genetics Editorial Board. PDQ Genetics of Renal Cell Carcinoma. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389510]

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Captured Date: 2013-11-05 15:00:17.0