Genetics of Wilms Tumor

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Wilms Tumor–named after the German surgeon/pathologist Max Wilms (pictured at left)–is an embryonal tumor that derives from developing kidney tissue. Wilms was the first to postulate that tumors may arise from precursor cells which arise during development, and indeed study of the molecular pathways active in these “nephroblastoma” shed light on normal kidney development.

There are several genes associated with patients with Wilms Tumor. Here are some of the main ones:

1. WT1 is a transcription factor and considered a tumor suppressor gene. Mutations in WT1 account for between 10-15% of sporadic Wilms tumor. It interacts with p53, a classic tumor suppressor involved in a wide variety of cancers. Denys-Drash Syndrome, a familial and severe form of Wilms tumor, is usually caused by congenital WT1 mutations.

2. beta-catenin is a key component of the canonical Wnt signaling pathway, long known to be a key player in kidney development. Interestingly, most patients with WT1 also have gain-of-function point mutations in the beta-catenin gene which result in increased stability of the beta-catenin protein and subsequent unregulated Wnt signaling.

3. WTX is mutated in a different subset of patients than those with WT1 mutations, and is found on the X-chromosome.

4. BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor): mutations in this growth factor are postulated to result in the WAGR Syndrome–a constellation of symptoms that includes Wilms Tumor along with aniridia, GU abnormalities, and mental retardation.

5. BRCA2: interestingly, mutations in the well-known breast cancer-susceptibility gene can also lead to Wilms tumor.

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