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 , 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 .
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.
 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.
 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.]
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Exercise can work wonders for your health, including strengthening muscles and bones, and boosting metabolism, mood, and memory skills. Now comes word that staying active may also help to lower your odds of developing cancer.
After reviewing the scientific evidence, a panel of experts recently concluded that physical activity is associated with reduced risks for seven common types of cancer: colon, breast, kidney, endometrial, bladder, stomach, and esophageal adenocarcinoma. What’s more, the experts found that exercise—both before and after a cancer diagnosis—was linked to improved survival among people with breast, colorectal, or prostate cancers.
About a decade ago, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) convened its first panel of experts to review the evidence on the role of exercise in cancer. At the time, there was limited evidence to suggest a connection between exercise and a reduced risk for breast, colon, and perhaps a few other cancer types. There also were some hints that exercise might help to improve survival among people with a diagnosis of cancer.
Today, the evidence linking exercise and cancer has grown considerably. That’s why the ACSM last year convened a group of 40 experts to perform a comprehensive review of the research literature and summarize the level of the evidence. The team, including Charles Matthews and Frank Perna with the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, reported its findings and associated guidelines and recommendations in three papers just published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise and CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians [1,2,3].
Here are some additional highlights from the papers:
There’s moderate evidence to support an association between exercise and reduced risk for some other cancer types, including cancers of the lung and liver.
While the optimal amount of exercise needed to reduce cancer risk is still unclear, being physically active is clearly one of the most important steps in general that people of all ages and abilities can take.
Is sitting the new smoking? Reducing the amount of time spent sitting also may help to lower the risk of some cancers, including endometrial, colon, and lung cancers. However, there’s not enough evidence to draw clear conclusions yet.
Every cancer survivor should, within reason, “avoid inactivity.” There’s plenty of evidence to show that aerobic and resistance exercise training improves many cancer-related health outcomes, reducing anxiety, depression, and fatigue while improving physical functioning and quality of life.
Physical activity before and after a diagnosis of cancer also may help to improve survival in some cancers, with perhaps the greatest benefits coming from exercise during and/or after cancer treatment.
Based on the evidence, the panel recommends that cancer survivors engage in moderate-intensity exercise, including aerobic and resistance training, at least two to three times a week. They should exercise for about 30 minutes per session.
The recommendation is based on added confirmation that exercise is generally safe for cancer survivors. The data indicate exercise can lead to improvements in anxiety, depression, fatigue, overall quality of life, and in some cases survival.
The panel also recommends that treatment teams and fitness professionals more systematically incorporate “exercise prescriptions” into cancer care. They should develop the resources to design exercise prescriptions that deliver the right amount of exercise to meet the specific needs, preferences, and abilities of people with cancer.
The ACSM has launched the “Moving Through Cancer” initiative. This initiative will help raise awareness about the importance of exercise during cancer treatment and help support doctors in advising their patients on those benefits.
It’s worth noting that there are still many fascinating questions to explore. While exercise is known to support better health in a variety of ways, correlation is not the same as causation. Questions remain about the underlying mechanisms that may help to explain the observed associations between physical activity, lowered cancer risk, and improved cancer survival.
An intensive NIH research effort, called the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC), is underway to identify molecular mechanisms that might explain the wide-ranging benefits of physical exercise. It might well shed light on cancer, too.
As that evidence continues to come in, the findings are yet another reminder of the importance of exercise to our health. Everybody—people who are healthy, those with cancer, and cancer survivors alike—should make an extra effort to remain as physically active as our ages, abilities, and current health will allow. If I needed any more motivation to keep up my program of vigorous exercise twice a week, guided by an experienced trainer, here it is!
 Exercise Is Medicine in Oncology: Engaging Clinicians to Help Patients Move Through Cancer. Schmitz KH, Campbell AM, Stuiver MM, Pinto BM, Schwartz AL, Morris GS, Ligibel JA, Cheville A, Galvão, DA, Alfano CM, Patel AV, Hue T, Gerber LH, Sallis R, Gusani NJ, Stout NL, Chan L, Flowers F, Doyle C, Helmrich S, Bain W, Sokolof J, Winters-Stone KM, Campbell KL, Matthews CE. CA Cancer J Clin. 2019 Oct 16 [Epub ahead of publication]
 American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable Report on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Cancer Prevention and Control. Patel AV, Friedenreich CM, Moore SC, Hayes SC, Silver JK, Campbell KL, Gerber LH, George SM, Fulton JE, Denlinger C, Morris GS, Hue T, Schmitz KH, Matthews CE. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of publication]
 Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors: Consensus Statement from International Multidisciplinary Roundtable. Campbell KL, Winters-Stone KM, Wiskemann J, May AM, Schwartz AL, Courneya KS, Zucker DS, Matthews CE, Ligibel JA, Gerber LH, Morris GS, Patel AV, Hue TF, Perna FM, Schmitz KH. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of publication]
Physical Activity and Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Moving Through Cancer (American College of Sports Medicine, Indianapolis, IN)
Charles Matthews (NCI)
Frank Perna (NCI)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
A lot of young people are driven—driven to get a good education, land a great job, find true love, or see the world. But, today, I want to honor the life of a young man who was driven by something even bigger. Andrew Lee was driven to cure kidney cancer—not only for himself, but for others as well.
I knew and loved Andrew. And so did the legion of doctors, nurses, researchers, and other team members who had the privilege of fighting cancer with him over four very challenging years. Andrew was 19, just finishing his freshman year of college, when he received a devastating diagnosis: stage 4 kidney cancer, a rare type called Hereditary Leiomyomatosis and Renal Cell Cancer (HLRCC). There is no known cure for HLRCC, and doctors estimated his survival at about a year at best.
Still, Andrew and his family weren’t about to go hide somewhere and wait for the end. They began a journey that led him to take part in at least seven clinical trials, including ones at Yale University, New Haven, CT; Georgetown University, Washington, DC; and the NIH Clinical Center, Bethesda, MD. Experimental treatments slowed down the cancer, but sometimes made him terribly sick. Yet, Andrew always remained optimistic and cheerful. If a trial didn’t help him, maybe it would help someone else.
Andrew’s generosity didn’t stop there. Inspired by his father’s gift of a totally awesome 2015 Liberty Walk Nissan GT-R, he founded the Driven To Cure (DTC) nonprofit and traveled the country in his orange sports car to raise funds for kidney cancer research. According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly 63,000 Americans are diagnosed with kidney and renal pelvis cancers each year.
Andrew figured out how to put the “fun” in fundraising, drawing crowds at car shows and raising more than $500,000 in donations in just three years. His efforts were recognized by the Foundation for the NIH’s Charlie Sanders Award, which I had the privilege of presenting to him last fall.
But I think it was Andrew’s humanity that touched us the most. He always had time to share his story, to encourage another child or adult struggling with a frightening diagnosis. He’d give thrills to kids at The Children’s Inn at NIH when he rumbled into the parking lot with his 700 horsepower GT-R. At car shows, throngs of people were drawn in by the turbocharged ride and then captivated by the young man with the bright smile and compelling story. Andrew wrote: “I realized that the vehicle of my dreams was also the vehicle which gave me the opportunity to make a difference; to do something bigger than myself.”
Still, on the personal level, kidney cancer proved relentless. Options for treatment eventually ran out. As the disease progressed, Andrew and his family had to make another difficult transition—choosing to celebrate life, even in the face of its approaching end. He needed a wheelchair, so family and friends came up with one, keeping in mind one of Andrew’s last wishes. When Andrew needed 24-hour care and pain control, he was admitted to the NIH Clinical Center Hospice Unit, where comfort could be provided and his loved ones could gather around. That even included getting government permission for a visit from his dog Milo! Surrounded by friends and family, he died peacefully on April 21.
Andrew made friends with everyone—especially kids at The Children’s Inn. One special buddy was Isaac Barchus, who has a rare autoinflammatory disease called CANDLE Syndrome. When he was back home in Omaha, NE, Isaac enjoyed challenging Andrew to long-distance video games, especially FIFA Soccer.
Although Isaac can walk, it can be very painful, so he sometimes turned to an old, beat-up wheelchair to cover long distances. But not anymore. When Isaac turned 15 on June 7, Andrew’s father Bruce Lee fulfilled his son’s wish for the future of his wheelchair. He presented Isaac with Andrew’s wheelchair, which had now been painted the same orange color as Andrew’s GT-R and emblazoned with the feisty slogan on Andrew’s personalized license plate—F CANCR. What a cool birthday gift!
During his final weeks and days, Andrew and his dad often listened to the Andy Grammer song, “Don’t Give Up on Me.” Andrew’s family never gave up on him, and he never gave up on them either. In fact, Andrew never gave up caring, loving, and believing. He wouldn’t want us to either, as his favorite song reminds us: “I will fight, I will fight for you; I always do until my heart is black and blue.”
Yes, Andrew, our hearts are black and blue from losing you. But we won’t give up on all you stood for in your short but inspiring life. Race In Peace, dear Andrew.
Remembering Andrew Lee (Foundation for the National Institutes of Health)
NIH Cancer Patient Receives Humanitarian Award (The NIH Record)
Driven To Cure (Silver Spring, MD)
Video: Fighting Cancer With a 700-hp Nissan GT-R (The Drive)
Video: Andy Grammer—”Don’t Give Up On Me” [Official Lyric Video] from the film Five Feet Apart
Hereditary Leiomyomatosis and Renal Cell Cancer (National Library of Medicine/NIH)
Kidney (Renal Cell) Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
CANDLE Syndrome (Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center/NIH)
Treating CANDLE Syndrome (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)