Sporadic and hereditary forms of renal cell carcinoma (RCC), von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease and the familial paraganglioma syndromes are closely related in terms of their clinical, molecular, and genetic aspects. Most RCCs occur sporadically and the heritable fraction of RCC is estimated to be just 2-4%. An understanding of the molecular genetic basis, the disease-specific and gene-specific biology and the clinical characteristics of these cancer syndromes is of utmost importance for effective genetic diagnosis and appropriate treatment. In addition, such insight will improve our understanding of sporadic RCCs. To date, 10 different heritable RCC syndromes have been described. VHL syndrome is the oldest known hereditary RCC syndrome. Similar to VHL disease, phaeochromocytoma is a major manifestation of the paraganglioma syndromes types 1, 3 and 4 in which RCCs have been reported. These syndromes are therefore regarded as VHL-related disorders and are included in this Review. Multifocal tumours, bilateral occurrence, a young age at diagnosis and/or family history are clinical red flags suggestive of hereditary disease and should trigger referral for genetic and molecular analysis. The identification of an underlying genetic alteration enables gene-specific risk assessment and opens up the possibility of a tailored follow-up strategy and specific surveillance protocols as the basis of effective preventive medicine. The important goals of preventive medicine are to increase the life expectancy of affected patients and to improve their quality of life. The study of seemingly rare hereditary syndromes and their susceptibility genes has consistently revealed clues regarding the aetiology and pathogenesis of these diseases, and can aid diagnosis and the development of therapeutics for patients affected by much more common sporadic counterparts.
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