Heritable germline mutations are estimated to drive 10% of all cancers, which can manifest as pediatric as well as adult diseases. This series, curated by Agata Smogorzewska and JCI Associate Editor Mary Armanios, unravels how the biology and genetics underlying familial cancer predisposition syndromes informs understanding of cancer etiology and biology. Reviews focus on cancer-driving mutations in transcription factors, in developmental and metabolic signals, and in pathways that control genetic stability and provide insights linking mechanistic studies with ongoing clinical research. Enhanced understanding of the biological basis for these familial cancers may inform the treatment of cancers driven by both germline and somatic mutations.
The distribution of telomere length in humans is broad, but it has finite upper and lower boundaries. Growing evidence shows that there are disease processes that are caused by both short and long telomere length extremes. The genetic basis of these short and long telomere syndromes may be linked to mutations in the same genes, such as the telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT), but through differential effects on telomere length. Short telomere syndromes have a predominant degenerative phenotype marked by organ failure that most commonly manifests as pulmonary fibrosis and are associated with a relatively low cancer incidence. In contrast, insights from studies of cancer-prone families as well as genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have identified both rare and common variants that lengthen telomeres as being strongly associated with cancer risk. We have hypothesized that these cancers represent a long telomere syndrome that is associated with a high penetrance of cutaneous melanoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. In this Review, we will synthesize the clinical and human genetic observations with data from mouse models to define the role of telomeres in cancer etiology and biology.
Emily J. McNally, Paz J. Luncsford, Mary Armanios
The field of hereditary kidney cancer has begun to mature following the identification of several germline syndromes that define genetic and molecular features of this cancer. Molecular defects within these hereditary syndromes demonstrate consistent deficits in angiogenesis and metabolic signaling, largely driven by altered hypoxia signaling. The classical mutation, loss of function of the von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) tumor suppressor, provides a human pathogenesis model for critical aspects of pseudohypoxia. These features are mimicked in a less common hereditary renal tumor syndrome, known as hereditary leiomyomatosis and renal cell carcinoma. Here, we review renal tumor angiogenesis and metabolism from a HIF-centric perspective, considering alterations in the hypoxic landscape, and molecular deviations resulting from high levels of HIF family members. Mutations underlying HIF deregulation drive multifactorial aberrations in angiogenic signals and metabolism. The mechanisms by which these defects drive tumor growth are still emerging. However, the distinctive patterns of angiogenesis and glycolysis-/glutamine-dependent bioenergetics provide insight into the cellular environment of these cancers. The result is a scenario permissive for aggressive tumorigenesis especially within the proximal renal tubule. These features of tumorigenesis have been highly actionable in kidney cancer treatments, and will likely continue as central tenets of kidney cancer therapeutics.
John C. Chappell, Laura Beth Payne, W. Kimryn Rathmell
The tumor suppressor phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN) classically counteracts the PI3K/AKT/mTOR signaling cascade. Germline pathogenic PTEN mutations cause PTEN hamartoma tumor syndrome (PHTS), featuring various benign and malignant tumors, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder. Germline and somatic mosaic mutations in genes encoding components of the PI3K/AKT/mTOR pathway downstream of PTEN predispose to syndromes with partially overlapping clinical features, termed the “PTEN-opathies.” Experimental models of PTEN pathway disruption uncover the molecular and cellular processes influencing clinical phenotypic manifestations. Such insights not only teach us about biological mechanisms in states of health and disease, but also enable more accurate gene-informed cancer risk assessment, medical management, and targeted therapeutics. Hence, the PTEN-opathies serve as a prototype for bedside to bench, and back to the bedside, practice of evidence-based precision medicine.
Lamis Yehia, Joanne Ngeow, Charis Eng
The Hedgehog pathway is critical for the development of diverse organs. Misactivation of the Hedgehog pathway can cause developmental abnormalities and cancers, including medulloblastoma, the most common pediatric brain tumor, and basal cell carcinoma, the most common cancer in the United States. Here, we review how basic, translational, and clinical studies of the Hedgehog pathway have helped reveal how cells communicate, how intercellular communication controls development, how signaling goes awry to cause cancer, and how to use targeted molecular agents to treat both inherited and sporadic cancers.
David R. Raleigh, Jeremy F. Reiter
The initiation and evolution of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are driven by genomic events that disrupt multiple genes controlling hematopoiesis. Human genetic studies have discovered germline mutations in single genes that instigate familial MDS/AML. The best understood of these genes encode transcription factors, such as GATA-2, RUNX1, ETV6, and C/EBPα, which establish and maintain genetic networks governing the genesis and function of blood stem and progenitor cells. Many questions remain unanswered regarding how genes and circuits within these networks function in physiology and disease and whether network integrity is exquisitely sensitive to or efficiently buffered from perturbations. In familial MDS/AML, mutations change the coding sequence of a gene to generate a mutant protein with altered activity or introduce frameshifts or stop codons or disrupt regulatory elements to alter protein expression. Each mutation has the potential to exert quantitatively and qualitatively distinct influences on networks. Consistent with this mechanistic diversity, disease onset is unpredictable and phenotypic variability can be considerable. Efforts to elucidate mechanisms and forge prognostic and therapeutic strategies must therefore contend with a spectrum of patient-specific leukemogenic scenarios. Here we illustrate mechanistic advances in our understanding of familial MDS/AML syndromes caused by germline mutations of hematopoietic transcription factors.
Jane E. Churpek, Emery H. Bresnick