Wilms tumor or nephroblastoma is a pediatric kidney cancer arising from pluripotent embryonic renal precursors. Multiple genetic loci have been linked to Wilms tumorigenesis; positional cloning strategies have led to the identification of the WT1 tumor suppressor gene at chromosome 11p13. WT1 encodes a zinc finger transcription factor that is inactivated in the germline of children with genetic predisposition to Wilms tumor and in a subset of sporadic cancers. When present in the germline, specific heterozygous dominant-negative mutations are associated with severe abnormalities of renal and sexual differentiation, pointing to the essential role of WT1 for normal genitourinary development. The role of this tumor suppressor in normal organ-specific differentiation is also supported by the highly restricted temporal and spatial expression of WT1 in glomerular precursors of the developing kidney and by the failure of kidney development in wt1-null mice. Of two major alternative splicing products encoded by WT1, the (-KTS) isoform appears to mediate transcriptional activation of genes implicated in cellular differentiation, possibly also repressing proliferation-associated genes. The (+KTS) isoform, whose DNA-binding domain is disrupted by the insertion of three amino acids, may be involved in some aspect of mRNA processing. In addition to its function in genitourinary development, a role for WT1 in hematopoiesis is suggested by its aberrant expression and/or mutation in a subset of acute human leukemias. WT1 is also expressed in mesothelial cells; a specific oncogenic chromosomal translocation fusing the N-terminal domain of the Ewing sarcoma gene EWS to the three C-terminal zinc fingers of WT1 underlies desmoplastic small round cell tumor, an abdominal tumor thought to arise from the peritoneal lining. Understanding the distinct functional properties of WT1 isoforms and tumor-associated variants will provide unique insight into the link between normal organ-specific differentiation and malignancy.
Copyright 2001 Academic Press.