Mass General Hospital, Living with TSC
Living with TSC
 Tuberous Sclerosis ComplexHow TSC Affects the BodyComprehensive CareTSC FamiliesInteractive Timeline
Brain: Anatomy Seizures | Learning | Mental Health        Heart | Skin | Kidney | Lung  | Eye | Other

Tumors, cysts, and other types of lesions of the kidney are common among people who have tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). In fact, kidney problems are the third most common manifestation of the disorder, after brain and skin lesions. Although many kidney abnormalities cause no symptoms, some have debilitating effects on kidney function and on the lives of people who have them.

The two most common kidney, or renal, manifestations in people with TSC are angiomyolipomas (AMLs) and renal cysts. Together these two types of lesions affect 80 percent or more of individuals with TSC. In addition, polycystic kidney disease, a related genetic disorder, occurs in 2 to 3 percent of people with TSC, and renal cell carcinoma, although rare, appears to be more common among those with TSC than in the general population.


Although renal manifestations associated with TSC may arise at any time, in general they occur in children after age five or young adults. Because of their tendency to increase in size and number over time, regular monitoring of these abnormalities is essential to the care of people with TSC.

Dr. Steele

In this video, nephrologist David Steele provides an overview of how TSC can affect the kidneys. [duration 2:00]
Show Video | Read Transcript

Renal Manifestations (in order of frequency):


angiomyolipomasclick to enlarge photograph

Kidney ultrasound image showing small angiomyolipomas (AMLs)

Angiomyolipomas (AMLs) occur in 70 to 80 percent of adults with TSC. These generally benign tumors may occur in children as young as two years old, but most often arise after age five. The name of these tumors refers to their composition: an abnormal collection of blood vessels (angio), smooth muscle (myo), and fat (lipoma). Most people with TSC develop multiple AMLs in both kidneys. In cases where AMLs remain relatively small (less than 4 cm in diameter), they generally cause few problems. Large tumors, however, can negatively affect kidney function by crowding and destroying healthy organ tissue. They can also cause internal hemorrhages if blood vessels associated with them rupture. Such internal bleeding can cause pain and, in rare cases, be life threatening if it goes untreated.

Although single AMLs occur in people who don't have TSC, multiple AMLs are considered characteristic of the disorder and are a major feature in the diagnostic criteria for TSC. Most AMLs are benign. However, people with TSC are more likely than those without the disorder to develop malignant kidney tumors. The rate of malignancy among people with TSC is 1 to 2 percent.

Renal Cysts

renal cystsclick to enlarge photograph

Kidney MRI showing multiple renal cysts

Renal cysts occur in approximately 20 percent of people with TSC. Doctors recognize two types of renal cysts. The more common of the two typically remains small (2 mm to 1 cm in diameter), appears as a single cyst or in small numbers, and has little effect on kidney function. The second type, which affects 2 to 3 percent of people with TSC, is large (1 cm to 5 cm in diameter), often occurs in large numbers, and typically affects both kidneys. This condition is similar to a disorder called polycystic kidney disease and results from a particular type of TSC mutation. In this case, a large portion of DNA on chromosome 16 is altered or deleted, affecting both the TSC2 gene and an adjacent gene called the polycystic kidney disease (PKD1) gene. People who have this condition tend to develop many cysts that grow and ultimately crowd renal tissue and compromise kidney function. Because renal cysts can occur in people with polycystic kidney disease who do not have TSC, they are considered a minor feature in the diagnostic criteria for TSC.

Renal Cell Carcinoma

Studies suggest that people with TSC may carry a slightly higher risk than those without TSC of developing a rare type of cancer called renal cell carcinoma. This cancer, the most common type of kidney cancer in adults, grows in the lining of very small tubes, or tubules, inside the kidney. Because renal cell carcinomas are particularly aggressive, it is important to identify and remove them as early as possible. Unfortunately, the presence of other TSC-related tumors, including AMLs and renal cysts, can make accurate identification of malignant tumors difficult. Physicians may use more than one type of imaging technology (for example, ultrasound or MRI) to identify or rule out the presence of a renal cell carcinoma.

Back to Top

This content was last reviewed on March 30, 2006.