Immunotherapy drugs encourage the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. It is sometimes used to treat types of advanced kidney cancer.

What are immunotherapy drugs?

Immunotherapy drugs encourage the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. These treatments are occasionally used to treat some types of advanced kidney cancer. Your specialist will tell you if they think any of these drugs are suitable for you.

There are many clinical trials looking at new immunotherapy drugs.

Nivolumab (OPDIVO®)

Nivolumab belongs to a group of cancer drugs known as monoclonal antibodies. It is also known as an immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI). It blocks a protein in the immune system called a checkpoint. Kidney cancer cells sometimes use checkpoint proteins to avoid being attacked by the immune system. So if the checkpoints are blocked, the immune system may attack and kill the cancer cells.

Nivolumab is given as a drip into a vein (intravenously) over about an hour. It can be given every 2 or 4 weeks for as long as it keeps the cancer under control.

Common side effects include:

It is important to tell your doctor or nurse about any side effects you have, even after you have stopped having nivolumab.

Nivolumab may not be widely available on the NHS for all types of kidney cancer. If a drug is not available, there may be different ways you can still have it. Your doctor can give you advice. They may be able to apply for funding to get it.

We have more information about nivolumab.


Ipilimumab is another monoclonal antibody.

Ipilimumab works by attaching itself to normal T-cells. T-cells are part of the immune system. They fight infection and disease. T-cells can normally recognise and destroy cancer cells. Sometimes a protein on the surface of T-cells, called CTLA-4, stops this happening. Ipilimumab blocks CTLA-4, so the T-cells can destroy the cancer cell.

Ipilimumab may be given in combination with nivolumab as part of a clinical trial. It is given as a drip over about 90 minutes (1½ hours).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will talk to you about the treatment in more detail if it is appropriate for you.

We have more information about ipilimumab.

Other treatments

In the past, the immunotherapy drugs interferon alpha and aldesleukin were commonly used to treat advanced kidney cancer. They are rarely used now, but very occasionally your doctor may recommend them.

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can give you more information.

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