The importance of the RET gene in thyroid cancer and therapeutic implications

Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2021 May;17(5):296-306. doi: 10.1038/s41574-021-00470-9. Epub 2021 Feb 18.


Since the discovery of the RET receptor tyrosine kinase in 1985, alterations of this protein have been found in diverse thyroid cancer subtypes. RET gene rearrangements are observed in papillary thyroid carcinoma, which result in RET fusion products. By contrast, single amino acid substitutions and small insertions and/or deletions are typical of hereditary and sporadic medullary thyroid carcinoma. RET rearrangements and mutations of extracellular cysteines facilitate dimerization and kinase activation, whereas mutations in the RET kinase coding domain drive dimerization-independent kinase activation. Thus, RET kinase inhibition is an attractive therapeutic target in patients with RET alterations. This approach was initially achieved using multikinase inhibitors, which affect multiple deregulated pathways that include RET kinase. In clinical practice, use of multikinase inhibitors in patients with advanced thyroid cancer resulted in therapeutic efficacy, which was associated with frequent and sometimes severe adverse effects. However, remarkable progress has been achieved with the identification of novel potent and selective RET kinase inhibitors for the treatment of advanced thyroid cancer. Although expanded clinical validation in future trials is needed, the sustained antitumoural activity and the improved safety profile of these novel compounds is opening a new exciting era in precision oncology for RET-driven cancers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Carcinoma, Neuroendocrine / genetics*
  • Carcinoma, Neuroendocrine / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Neuroendocrine / therapy
  • DNA / genetics*
  • DNA Mutational Analysis
  • Humans
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy / methods*
  • Mutation*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-ret / genetics*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-ret / metabolism
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / therapy


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • DNA
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-ret
  • RET protein, human

Supplementary concepts

  • Thyroid cancer, medullary