The discovery and characterization of the von Hippel Lindau (VHL) syndrome has brought about tremendous advances in understanding the molecular mechanisms of renal cell carcinoma. VHL mutations are known to act through hypoxia inducible factor, which has a physiologic role in detecting hypoxia. Recent investigations into other hereditary forms of kidney cancer with mutations in genes involving energy metabolism and oxidative changes, such as fumarate hydratase, suggest that metabolic changes related to hypoxia detection may be a common mechanism of tumorigenesis. This implicates aberrations in the kidney's physiologic role in detection of hypoxia in tumor formation. Germline mutations of genes involved in energy metabolism and oxidative perturbations lead to tumors in other tissues that detect hypoxia, such as head and neck paragangliomas that occur in the area of the carotid body. Therefore, aberrations in physiologic detection of hypoxia that predispose to tumor formation may not be a mechanism unique to the kidney. Furthermore, inducers of hypoxic perturbations other than germline mutations in metabolic genes may predispose to cancers in organs that have a physiologic role in detecting hypoxia. Conditions that effectively lead to tissue hypoxia in hypoxia detecting tissues is one such mechanism. We propose that some of the common molecular and physiologic mechanisms in heritable forms of kidney cancer, namely detection of hypoxia, may play a role in the genesis of sporadic kidney cancer. We survey evidence suggesting that the mechanism of some recognized risk factors of kidney cancer, such as smoking and obesity, may be due in part to tissue hypoxia, reflecting physiologic detection of hypoxia gone awry.
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