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NCI Support for Basic Science Paves Way for Kidney Cancer Drug Belzutifan

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Belzutifan, Shrinking kidney cancer. woman with superimposed kidney tumor. Arrows suggest shrinking

There’s exciting news for people with von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease, a rare genetic disorder that can lead to cancerous and non-cancerous tumors in multiple organs, including the brain, spinal cord, kidney, and pancreas. In August 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved belzutifan (Welireg), a new drug that has been shown in a clinical trial led by National Cancer Institute (NCI) researchers to shrink some tumors associated with VHL disease [1], which is caused by inherited mutations in the VHL tumor suppressor gene.

As exciting as this news is, relatively few people have this rare disease. The greater public health implication of this advancement is for people with sporadic, or non-inherited, clear cell kidney cancer, which is by far the most common subtype of kidney cancer, with more than 70,000 cases and about 14,000 deaths per year. Most cases of sporadic clear cell kidney cancer are caused by spontaneous mutations in the VHL gene.

This advancement is also a great story of how decades of support for basic science through NCI’s scientists in the NIH Intramural Research Program and its grantees through extramural research funding has led to direct patient benefit. And it’s a reminder that we never know where basic science discoveries might lead.

Belzutifan works by disrupting the process by which the loss of VHL in a tumor turns on a series of molecular processes. These processes involve the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) transcription factor and one of its subunits, HIF-2α, that lead to tumor formation.

The unraveling of the complex relationship among VHL, the HIF pathway, and cancer progression began in 1984, when Bert Zbar, Laboratory of Immunobiology, NCI-Frederick; and Marston Linehan, NCI’s Urologic Oncology Branch, set out to find the gene responsible for clear cell kidney cancer. At the time, there were no effective treatments for advanced kidney cancer, and 80 percent of patients died within two years.

Zbar and Linehan started by studying patients with sporadic clear cell kidney cancer, but then turned their focus to investigations of people affected with VHL disease, which predisposes a person to developing clear cell kidney cancer. By studying the patients and the genetic patterns of tumors collected from these patients, the researchers hypothesized that they could find genes responsible for kidney cancer.

Linehan established a clinical program at NIH to study and manage VHL patients, which facilitated the genetic studies. It took nearly a decade, but, in 1993, Linehan, Zbar, and Michael Lerman, NCI-Frederick, identified the VHL gene, which is mutated in people with VHL disease. They soon discovered that tumors from patients with sporadic clear cell kidney cancer also have mutations in this gene.

Subsequently, with NCI support, William G. Kaelin Jr., Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, discovered that VHL is a tumor suppressor gene that, when inactivated, leads to the accumulation of HIF.

Another NCI grantee, Gregg L. Semenza, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, identified HIF as a transcription factor. And Peter Ratcliffe, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, discovered that HIF plays a role in blood vessel development and tumor growth.

Kaelin and Ratcliffe simultaneously showed that the VHL protein tags a subunit of HIF for destruction when oxygen levels are high. These results collectively answered a very old question in cell biology: How do cells sense the intracellular level of oxygen?

Subsequent studies by Kaelin, with NCI’s Richard Klausner and Linehan, revealed the critical role of HIF in promoting the growth of clear cell kidney cancer. This work ultimately focused on one member of the HIF family, the HIF-2α subunit, as the key mediator of clear cell kidney cancer growth.

The fundamental work of Kaelin, Semenza, and Ratcliffe earned them the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It also paved the way for drug discovery efforts that target numerous points in the pathway leading to clear cell kidney cancer, including directly targeting the transcriptional activity of HIF-2α with belzutifan.

Clinical trials of belzutifan, including several supported by NCI, demonstrated potent anti-cancer activity in VHL-associated kidney cancer, as well as other VHL-associated tumors, leading to the aforementioned recent FDA approval. This is an important development for patients with VHL disease, providing a first-in-class therapy that is effective and well-tolerated.

We believe this is only the beginning for belzutifan’s use in patients with cancer. A number of trials are now studying the effectiveness of belzutifan for sporadic clear cell kidney cancer. A phase 3 trial is ongoing, for example, to look at the effectiveness of belzutifan in treating people with advanced kidney cancer. And promising results from a phase 2 study show that belzutifan, in combination with cabozantinib, a widely used agent to treat kidney cancer, shrinks tumors in patients previously treated for metastatic clear cell kidney cancer [2].

This is a great scientific story. It shows how studies of familial cancer and basic cell biology lead to effective new therapies that can directly benefit patients. I’m proud that NCI’s support for basic science, both intramurally and extramurally, is making possible many of the discoveries leading to more effective treatments for people with cancer.


[1] Belzutifan for Renal Cell Carcinoma in von Hippel-Lindau Disease. Jonasch E, Donskov F, Iliopoulos O, Rathmell WK, Narayan VK, Maughan BL, Oudard S, Else T, Maranchie JK, Welsh SJ, Thamake S, Park EK, Perini RF, Linehan WM, Srinivasan R; MK-6482-004 Investigators. N Engl J Med. 2021 Nov 25;385(22):2036-2046.

[2] Phase 2 study of the oral hypoxia-inducible factor 2α (HIF-2α) inhibitor MK-6482 in combination with cabozantinib in patients with advanced clear cell renal cell carcinoma (ccRCC). Choueiri TK et al. J Clin Oncol. 2021 Feb 20;39(6_suppl): 272-272.

Von Hippel-Lindau Disease (Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center/National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

Clear Cell Renal Cell Carcinoma (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Belzutifan Approved to Treat Tumors Linked to Inherited Disorder VHL, Cancer Currents Blog, National Cancer Institute, September 21, 2021.

The Long Road to Understanding Kidney Cancer (Intramural Research Program/NIH)

[Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s institutes and centers to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog as a way to highlight some of the cool science that they support and conduct. This is the first in the series of NIH institute and center guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.]

Encouraging News for Kids with Neurofibromatosis Type 1

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Dr. Collins with NF1 Patient
Caption: This photo goes back a few years. I’m talking to a child with neurofibromatosis type 1 during the search for the NF1 gene, which was discovered in 1990. Credit: University of Michigan Bio Med Photo Department, Ann Arbor

Amid all the headlines and uncertainty surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to overlook the important progress that biomedical research is making against other diseases. So, today, I’m pleased to share word of what promises to be the first effective treatment to help young people suffering from the consequences of a painful, often debilitating genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1).

This news is particularly meaningful to me because, 30 years ago, I led a team that discovered the gene that underlies NF1. About 1 in 3,000 babies are born with NF1. In about half of those affected, a type of tumor called a plexiform neurofibroma arises along nerves in the skin, face, and other parts of the body. While plexiform neurofibromas are not cancerous, they grow steadily and can lead to severe pain and a range of other health problems, including vision and hearing loss, hypertension, and mobility issues.

The good news is the results of a phase II clinical trial involving NF1, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The trial was led by Brigitte Widemann and Andrea Gross, researchers in the Center for Cancer Research at NIH’s National Cancer Institute.

The trial’s results confirm that a drug originally developed to treat cancer, called selumetinib, can shrink inoperable tumors in many children with NF1. They also establish that the drug can help affected kids make significant improvements in strength, range of motion, and quality of life. While selumetinib is not a cure, and further studies are still needed to see how well the treatment works in the long term, these results suggest that the first effective treatment for NF1 is at last within our reach.

Selumetinib blocks a protein in human cells called MEK. This protein is involved in a major cellular pathway known as RAS that can become dysregulated and give rise to various cancers. By blocking the MEK protein in animal studies and putting the brakes on the RAS pathway when it malfunctions, selumetinib showed great initial promise as a cancer drug.

Selumetinib was first tested several years ago in people with a variety of other cancers, including ovarian and non-small cell lung cancers. The clinical research looked good at first but eventually stalled, and so did much of the initial enthusiasm for selumetinib.

But the enthusiasm picked up when researchers considered repurposing the drug to treat NF1. The neurofibromas associated with the condition were known to arise from a RAS-activating loss of the NF1 gene. It made sense that blocking the MEK protein might blunt the overactive RAS signal and help to shrink these often-inoperable tumors.

An earlier phase 1 safety trial looked promising, showing for the first time that the drug could, in some cases, shrink large NF1 tumors [2]. This fueled further research, and the latest study now adds significantly to that evidence.

In the study, Widemann and colleagues enrolled 50 children with NF1, ranging in age from 3 to 17. Their tumor-related symptoms greatly affected their wellbeing and ability to thrive, including disfigurement, limited strength and motion, and pain. Children received selumetinib alone orally twice a day and went in for assessments at least every four months.

As of March 2019, 35 of the 50 children in the ongoing study had a confirmed partial response, meaning that their tumors had shrunk by more than 20 percent. Most had maintained that response for a year or more. More importantly, the kids also felt less pain and were more able to enjoy life.

It’s important to note that the treatment didn’t work for everyone. Five children stopped taking the drug due to side effects. Six others progressed while on the drug, though five of them had to reduce their dose because of side effects before progressing. Nevertheless, for kids with NF1 and their families, this is a big step forward.

Drug developer AstraZeneca, working together with the researchers, has submitted a New Drug Application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While they’re eagerly awaiting the FDA’s decision, the work continues.

The researchers want to learn much more about how the drug affects the health and wellbeing of kids who take it over the long term. They’re also curious whether it could help to prevent the growth of large tumors in kids who begin taking it earlier in the course of the disease, and whether it might benefit other features of the disorder. They will continue to look ahead to other potentially promising treatments or treatment combinations that may further help, and perhaps one day even cure, kids with NF1. So, even while we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are reasons to feel encouraged and grateful for continued progress made throughout biomedical research.


[1] Selumitinib in children with inoperable plexiform neurofibromas. New England Journal of Medicine. Gross AM, Wolters PL, Dombi E, Baldwin A, Whitcomb P, Fisher MJ, Weiss B, Kim A, Bornhorst M, Shah AC, Martin S, Roderick MC, Pichard DC, Carbonell A, Paul SM, Therrien J, Kapustina O, Heisey K, Clapp DW, Zhang C, Peer CJ, Figg WD, Smith M, Glod J, Blakeley JO, Steinberg SM, Venzon DJ, Doyle LA, Widemann BC. 18 March 2020. N Engl J Med. 2020 Mar 18. [Epub ahead of publication.]

[2] Activity of selumetinib in neurofibromatosis type 1-related plexiform neurofibromas. Dombi E, Baldwin A, Marcus LJ, Fisher MJ, Weiss B, Kim A, Whitcomb P, Martin S, Aschbacher-Smith LE, Rizvi TA, Wu J, Ershler R, Wolters P1, Therrien J, Glod J, Belasco JB, Schorry E, Brofferio A, Starosta AJ, Gillespie A, Doyle AL, Ratner N, Widemann BC. N Engl J Med. 2016 Dec 29;375(26):2550-2560.


Neurofibromatosis Fact Sheet (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Brigitte Widemann (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Andrea Gross (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute

Precision Oncology: Gene Changes Predict Immunotherapy Response

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Cancer Immunotherapy

Caption: Adapted from scanning electron micrograph of cytotoxic T cells (red) attacking a cancer cell (white).
Credits: Rita Elena Serda, Baylor College of Medicine; Jill George, NIH

There’s been tremendous excitement in the cancer community recently about the life-saving potential of immunotherapy. In this treatment strategy, a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. But despite many dramatic stories of response, immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone. A major challenge has been figuring out how to identify with greater precision which patients are most likely to benefit from this new approach, and how to use that information to develop strategies to expand immunotherapy’s potential.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about early progress on this front, highlighting a small study in which NIH-funded researchers were able to predict which people with colorectal and other types of cancer would benefit from an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda®). The key seemed to be that tumors with defects affecting the “mismatch repair” pathway were more likely to benefit. Mismatch repair is involved in fixing small glitches that occur when DNA is copied during cell division. If a tumor is deficient in mismatch repair, it contains many more DNA mutations than other tumors—and, as it turns out, immunotherapy appears to be most effective against tumors with many mutations.

Now, I’m pleased to report more promising news from that clinical trial of pembrolizumab, which was expanded to include 86 adults with 12 different types of mismatch repair-deficient cancers that had been previously treated with at least one type of standard therapy [1]. After a year of biweekly infusions, more than half of the patients had their tumors shrink by at least 30 percent—and, even better, 18 had their tumors completely disappear!

DNA Barcodes Could Streamline Search for New Drugs to Combat Cancer

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Cells labeled with barcodesA little more than a decade ago, researchers began adapting a familiar commercial concept to genomics: the barcode. Instead of the black, printed stripes of the Universal Product Codes (UPCs) that we see on everything from package deliveries to clothing tags, they used short, unique snippets of DNA to label cells. These biological “barcodes” enable scientists to distinguish one cell type from another, in much the same way that a supermarket scanner recognizes different brands of cereal.

DNA barcoding has already empowered single-cell analysis, including for nerve cells in the brain. Now, in a new NIH-supported study, DNA barcoding helps in the development of a new method that could greatly streamline an increasingly complex and labor-intensive process: screening for drugs to combat cancer.