Metastatic renal cell carcinoma (mRCC) is nearly incurable and accounts for most of the mortality associated with RCC. Von Hippel Lindau (VHL) is a tumour suppressor that is lost in the majority of clear cell RCC (ccRCC) cases. Its role in regulating hypoxia-inducible factors-1α (HIF-1α) and -2α (HIF-2α) is well-studied. Recent work has demonstrated that VHL knock down induces an epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) phenotype. In this study we showed that a CRISPR/Cas9-mediated knock out of VHL in the RENCA model leads to morphologic and molecular changes indicative of EMT, which in turn drives increased metastasis to the lungs. RENCA cells deficient in HIF-1α failed to undergo EMT changes upon VHL knockout. RNA-seq revealed several HIF-1α-regulated genes that are upregulated in our VHL knockout cells and whose overexpression signifies an aggressive form of ccRCC in the cancer genome atlas (TCGA) database. Independent validation in a new clinical dataset confirms the upregulation of these genes in ccRCC samples compared to adjacent normal tissue. Our findings indicate that loss of VHL could be driving tumour cell dissemination through stabilization of HIF-1α in RCC. A better understanding of the mechanisms involved in this phenomenon can guide the search for more effective treatments to combat mRCC.
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