Von Hippel-Lindau disease is a rare hereditary disorder that causes tumors to develop in several organs.
Tumors most commonly develop in the brain and retina of the eyes. These tumors, called angiomas, consist of blood vessels. Other types of tumors develop in other organs and include tumors in the adrenal glands (pheochromocytomas) and cysts in the kidneys, liver, or pancreas. As people with the disorder age, the risk of developing kidney cancer increases.
The gene that causes von Hippel-Lindau disease has been identified. Only one gene for the disorder—from one parent—is required for the disorder to develop. Each child of an affected parent has a 50% chance of inheriting the disorder. In 20% of people with this disorder, it results from a new mutation.
Typically, symptoms appear between ages 10 and 30, but they can appear earlier.
Symptoms depend on the size and location of the tumors. Children may have headaches and feel dizzy or weak. Vision may be impaired, and blood pressure may be high.
Tumors in the retina usually cause no symptoms, but if they enlarge, they can cause substantial loss of vision. When these tumors are present, the retina may become detached, fluid may accumulate on or under the macula (the central part of the retina), and the optic nerve may be damaged by increased pressure within the eye, resulting in glaucoma.
Without treatment, people may become blind, have brain damage, or die. Death usually results from complications of brain tumors or kidney cancer.
Doctors determine whether any family members have the disorder and do a physical examination. If findings suggest the disorder, various tests are done to check for tumors and other abnormalities: computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain, an eye examination including ophthalmoscopy, and ultrasonography or CT of the abdomen. Hearing tests and blood tests are also done.
Von Hippel-Lindau disease is diagnosed when one of the following is present:
If doctors detect one tumor typical of this disorder, they look for others.
Genetic testing is done to check for the abnormal gene in family members. If an abnormal gene is detected, family members are monitored for tumors for the rest of their life.
Tumors are surgically removed, if possible, before they cause permanent damage. High-dose radiation therapy, focused on the tumor, can sometimes be used instead.
Typically, tumors of the retina are destroyed using laser therapy or application of extreme cold (cryotherapy). These procedures help preserve vision.
Tests used to detect tumors are repeated every 1 or 2 years because new tumors may develop.
Last full review/revision February 2009 by Margaret C. McBride, MD