Kidney cancer breakthrough: Existing lung drug 'might fight disease'

Hope for thousands battling kidney cancer as study reveals existing lung drug might help fight disease

  • Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is one of the most common cancers in the UK and US
  • This is partially because most patients show no symptoms until it’s at a late stage
  • Cambridge University researchers said they were ‘optimistic’ about the potential

Thousands of kidney patients could potentially benefit from a new breakthrough.

Researchers have discovered an existing lung cancer drug may be effective against the disease.

Renal cell carcinoma is one of the most common cancers in the UK and US and has a 50 per cent mortality rate, partially because three in five patients show no symptoms until the cancer is at a late stage.

Now, a study into the cancer at single-cell level has discovered canakinumab could prevent RCC from forming or progressing.

Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is one of the most common cancers in the UK and US and has a 50 per cent mortality rate

Researchers studied over 270,000 single cells and 100 micro-dissections from 12 patients with kidney tumours.

Samples were taken from different parts of the tumour, as well as normal kidney tissue.

Analysis highlighted a particular type of macrophage – or white blood cell — expressing a gene called IL1B, that is abundant at the fringes of the tumours.

Each year around 12,600 people in the UK are diagnosed with kidney cancer and around 63,000 in the US, according to figures.

It is one of the fastest growing cancers in terms of incidence, with rates increasing by 50 per cent in the past decade.

Risk factors for kidney cancer include obesity, smoking, high blood pressure and a family history of the disease. Tell-tale symptoms include blood in the urine.

Most cases of kidney cancer don’t cause any symptoms in the early stages, according to the NHS. The most common symptoms of mid- to advanced-stage kidney cancer are:

  • Blood in the urine: The amount of blood is usually high enough to change the colour of your urine to a reddish or dark brown colour
  • A persistent pain in your side, just below the ribs
  • A lump or swelling in the area of your kidneys (on either side of the body)

However, in around half of all cases the cancer causes no symptoms and is only detected during a routine ultrasound scan.

Renal cell carcinoma makes up around 50 per cent of all kidney cancer cases, charities say. 

This is significant, the researchers say, because this cell type has already been targeted using drugs that prevent lung cancer.

The team are already planning clinical trials to test whether targeting IL1B macrophages is an effective treatment for RCC.

The findings could also be important for people who suffer from Von Hippel-Lindau disease, which leads to the formation of innumerable tumours – commonly in the kidneys and pancreas – throughout a person’s life.

While kidney tumours can be monitored and surgically removed before the cancer can spread to other parts of the body, there is a limit to how many times patients can have surgery before losing kidney function.

Dr Thomas Mitchell, a senior author of the study from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge, said: ‘I’m optimistic that targeting IL1B macrophages may provide us with a way to treat renal cell carcinomas without resorting to surgery.

‘This will be particularly important for patients with VHL disease because we should be able to prevent tumours forming in the first place by focusing on their genetic roots, rather than waiting for them to grow and removing them.

‘As is the case for all cancers, the earlier we can intervene the better.’

Dr Ruoyan Li, first author of the study from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: ‘Using both single-cell sequencing and spatial transcriptomics allowed us to discover not only what cell types were present in these renal cell carcinoma tumours, but how the cell types were organised in space.

‘This approach meant we could pinpoint macrophages expressing the IL1B gene at the leading edges of tumours, acting almost like a vanguard for tumour growth.’

The findings were published in the journal Cancer Cell.

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