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Pathology Of Renal Cell Carcinoma

Uncover the intricate details of renal cell carcinoma's pathology, revealing the underlying mechanisms behind this devastating form of kidney cancer.

USMLE Guide: Pathology of Renal Cell Carcinoma


Renal Cell Carcinoma (RCC) is the most common type of kidney cancer, accounting for approximately 90% of cases. This USMLE guide aims to provide you with an overview of the pathology of RCC, including its etiology, classification, histological features, and diagnostic approaches.


  • Risk Factors: Certain risk factors increase the likelihood of developing RCC, including smoking, obesity, hypertension, family history of kidney cancer, and exposure to certain chemicals (such as cadmium or asbestos).
  • Genetic Factors: Approximately 2-3% of RCC cases are hereditary, with mutations in genes like VHL, MET, FH, and others contributing to tumor formation.


  • Clear Cell RCC: This is the most common subtype of RCC, accounting for about 70-80% of cases. Histologically, clear cytoplasm and distinctive vascular architecture (arborizing vessels) are observed.
  • Papillary RCC: Comprising 10-15% of RCC cases, papillary RCC is characterized by papillary structures lined with cuboidal to columnar cells. Two subtypes exist, type 1 and type 2, each with distinct genetic alterations.
  • Chromophobe RCC: Representing 5% of RCC cases, chromophobe RCC exhibits cells with pale, eosinophilic cytoplasm, and perinuclear halos. The genetic alteration involves loss of chromosomes 1, 2, 6, 10, 13, and 21.
  • Collecting Duct RCC: This rare subtype accounts for less than 1% of RCC cases and shows aggressive behavior with early metastasis. It originates from the collecting ducts of the kidney.
  • Unclassified RCC: These cases do not fit into any specific subtypes and may display unique features.

Histological Features

  • Clear Cell RCC: Clear cytoplasm due to lipid and glycogen accumulation, arborizing vasculature (staghorn-like), and a solid pattern of growth.
  • Papillary RCC: Papillary architecture, psammoma bodies (calcifications), and foamy macrophages.
  • Chromophobe RCC: Eosinophilic cells with perinuclear halos ("raisinoid" nuclei), and a characteristic reticulated cytoplasm.
  • Collecting Duct RCC: Tubulopapillary pattern, medullary location, and infiltrative growth.

Diagnostic Approaches

  • Imaging Techniques: Ultrasonography, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are commonly used for initial evaluation, providing information about tumor size, location, and potential metastasis.
  • Biopsy: Percutaneous needle biopsy is only performed when imaging is inconclusive or when metastatic disease is suspected.
  • Laboratory Tests: Blood tests to assess renal function, complete blood count, and levels of liver enzymes, as well as urine analysis to detect microscopic hematuria.
  • Genetic Testing: In certain cases, genetic testing, such as analysis of VHL gene mutations, may be helpful, especially for patients with a family history of kidney cancer.


Understanding the pathology of Renal Cell Carcinoma (RCC) is crucial for its early detection, accurate diagnosis, and appropriate management. This USMLE guide has provided you with key information regarding the etiology, classification, histological features, and diagnostic approaches related to RCC.

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