Papillary Renal Cell Carcinoma – An Introduction

Papillary Renal Cell Carcinoma

In the US, there are 60,000 new cases of renal cell carcinoma (rcc) each year, the vast majority (~75%) of which are clear cell histology (ccrcc). Papillary renal cell carcinoma (prcc) accounts for 10-15% of the total, or 6-9,000 new cases a year. The histology of the tumor is classified by a pathologist according to what is observed under a microscope. For example, ccrcc cells look clear to the eye, distinguishing them from other kidney cancer types. In prcc, pathologists have established that there are currently two types of distinct diseases, naming them Type 1 and Type 2 (see sample slides below).

In a very small number of cases, prcc can be hereditary. Researchers have found that, for each type, a different specific gene has a mutation in hereditary or familial prcc. For Type 1 it’s the c-Met gene and for Type 2 it’s the FH (fumarate hydratase ) gene. But these mutations occur in fewer than 10% of the prcc cases that are not familial, thus implying that there are other genes involved in the pathogenesis of non-familial, or sporadic prcc. The c-Met gene controls cell growth and proliferation and plays a role in many cancers besides prcc, notably lung, gastric, and melanoma.

In general, prcc is more often localized in the kidney, slower growing, and non-metastatic in comparison to ccrcc, although Type 2 prcc is often aggressive. Some pathologists postulate that there are two categories of Type 2 prcc, one is more related to Type 1 with indolent tumors, and the second presenting very aggressive tumors with poor survival rates.

In a recent study by the National Cancer Institute, African-Americans who contracted kidney cancer were less likely to have clear cell but were three times as likely to have papillary than Caucasians. This may be related to the sickle-cell genetic disorder, however, there have been no studies that verify this association.

Understanding which gene or genes are mutated in a specific cancer is important since therapy is often guided by that knowledge. For clear cell disease, the VHL gene is mutated or otherwise disabled, giving rise to a biologic process called angiogenesis, or the creation and proliferation of blood vessels that feed a fast growing tumor. So, for clear cell, a number of therapies have been developed by the drug companies to slow or halt angiogenesis in the hope of slowing or stopping the growth of metastasized disease. These so-called targeted therapies were all developed to fight ccrcc, and have been somewhat effective in slowing its progression. They have been less effective when used in prcc patients. Of the eight kidney cancer therapies that have been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), seven of them were developed to stem angiogenesis and, in the case of two of them, both angiogenesis and cell growth factors. The eighth therapy is Interleukin-2, an immunotherapy that is not at all effective in treating prcc patients.

To summarize, there are no kidney cancer therapies that have been developed specifically to combat prcc, and there are presently few in development with any drug company. Not only is there little or no clinical research (drug development) being done for prcc, there is little basic research as well. Without research, there is no drug development, and without drugs specific to the disease, metastatic papillary patients have a poor prognosis for survival, especially as compared to ccrcc patients.

What can you do to take action?  At Action to Cure Kidney Cancer, we want to battle and defeat all types of kidney cancer, not just clear cell. Therefore, we are forming a special group of prcc patients and caregivers to serve as advocates for issues related to prcc by informing prcc patients about their disease, encouraging development of drugs specific to papillary disease of all types, and promoting and supporting research efforts. If you are a prcc patient or caregiver and want to advocate for a change in the treatment of this disease, then click here to join the effort.


Clear Cell                                           Papillary Type 1 (low)                                  Papillary Type 2 (high)

Note: The above slides were provided to us by Ximing J. Yang, MD, PhD, Northwestern University,Feinberg School of Medicine.