Renal cell carcinomas of chronic kidney disease patients harbor the mutational signature of carcinogenic aristolochic acid

Int J Cancer. 2015 Jun 15;136(12):2967-72. doi: 10.1002/ijc.29338. Epub 2014 Dec 10.


Aristolochic acid (AA) is a potent dietary cytotoxin and carcinogen, and an established etiological agent underlying severe human nephropathies and associated upper urinary tract urothelial cancers, collectively designated aristolochic acid nephropathy (AAN). Its genome-wide mutational signature, marked by predominant A:T > T:A transversions occurring in the 5'-CpApG-3' trinucleotide context and enriched on the nontranscribed gene strand, has been identified in human upper urinary tract urothelial carcinomas from East Asian patients and in experimental systems. Here we report a whole-exome sequencing screen performed on DNA from formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded renal cell carcinomas (RCC) arising in chronic renal disease patients from a Balkan endemic nephropathy (EN) region. In the EN regions, the disease results from the consumption of bread made from wheat contaminated by seeds of Aristolochia clematitis, an AA-containing plant. In five of eight (62.5%) tested RCC tumor specimens, we observed the characteristic global mutational signature consistent with the mutagenic effects of AA. This signature was absent in the control RCC samples obtained from patients from a nonendemic, metropolitan region. By identifying a new tumor type associated with the AA-driven genome-wide mutagenic process in the context of renal disease, our results suggest new epidemiological and public health implications for the RCC incidence worldwide, particularly for the high-risk regions with unregulated use of AA-containing traditional herbal medicines.

Keywords: aristolochic acid; endemic nephropathy; mutational signature; renal cell carcinoma; whole-exome sequencing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aristolochic Acids / toxicity
  • Balkan Nephropathy / complications*
  • Carcinogens / toxicity
  • Carcinoma, Renal Cell / genetics*
  • Exome / genetics
  • Female
  • Gene Frequency
  • Humans
  • Kidney Diseases / complications*
  • Kidney Neoplasms / etiology
  • Kidney Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Point Mutation / drug effects
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA


  • Aristolochic Acids
  • Carcinogens
  • aristolochic acid I