Immunotherapies for kidney cancer

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.

Ipilimumab (Yervoy®)

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.

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.

Back to Treating

Decisions about treatment

Your doctors may tell you there are different options for your treatment. Having the right information will help you make the right decision for you.

Surgery for kidney cancer

Surgery involves removing all or part of the cancer with an operation. It is an important treatment for many cancers.

Monitoring kidney cancer

Sometimes, active treatment may not be immediately necessary or appropriate. Doctors may suggest monitoring small, low-grade cancers.

Targeted (biological) therapies

Targeted (biological) therapies interfere with the way cells grow and divide. Find out how they may be used to treat kidney (renal) cancer.

Radiotherapy for kidney cancer

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells. It may relieve symptoms caused by kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.

Clinical trials

Many people are offered a trial as part of treatment. Find out more to help you decide if a trial is right for you.

Life after cancer treatment

You might be thinking about how to get back to normal following treatment. Find advice, information and support about coping with and after cancer.