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Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses medications to boost the patient’s immune system so that it can more effectively identify and destroy cancer cells. This type of treatment is used for a variety of cancers, including renal cell cancer (kidney cancer). Immunotherapy is most commonly used to treat advanced or metastatic kidney cancer, while surgery, targeted therapy and other types of treatments are typically used for early-stage kidney cancer.

Types of immunotherapy used for treating kidney cancer

There are many different types of immunotherapy, several of which have proven effective in treating kidney cancer. Immunotherapy can help slow cancer growth, shrink tumors and destroy cancerous cells. There are two main categories of immunotherapies that are used for kidney cancer:

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

The body’s T cells (immune cells) have checkpoint proteins on their surfaces that bind with partner proteins on healthy cells, preventing an immune response. Some cancer cells mimic those partner proteins to trick the immune system and avoid destruction. An immune checkpoint inhibitor prevents cancer cell proteins from binding with T cells proteins, which triggers the immune system to destroy the cancer cells.

Some examples of this type of immunotherapy that are used for treating kidney cancer include:

  • Nivolumab (Opdivo®)
  • Ipilimumab (Yervoy®)
  • Avelumab (Bavencio®)
  • Pembrolizumab (Keytruda®)


Cytokine are a type of protein that boost the overall function of the immune system. For this form of immunotherapy, man-made cytokines called interleukins are delivered to the patient through intravenous infusions, which helps immune system cells grow and multiply quickly to fight off cancer more effectively.

Potential side effects of immunotherapy for kidney cancer

The side effects of immunotherapy vary based on the specific therapy delivered, the dosage, the stage of the patient’s kidney cancer, and their overall level of health—they are also often simply different person to person. However, some common side effects of immunotherapy include:

  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Itching
  • Skin rash
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Joint, bone or muscle pain
  • Chills
  • Confusion
  • Low blood pressure

Rarer but potentially serious side effects include:

  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Infusion reactions with symptoms similar to an allergic reaction
  • Autoimmune reactions where the immune system starts attacking healthy cells and organs

How effective is immunotherapy for treating kidney cancer?

Every patient reacts differently to immunotherapy, and while it is not effective for everyone, it has become an integral part of the treatment and management of late-stage and metastatic kidney cancer. Immunotherapy may be used alone or in combination with other treatment options to provide the best possible patient outcome and help maintain a high quality of life.

Immunotherapy vs. other kidney cancer treatment options

As outlined above, immunotherapy works by enabling the body’s natural defenses (the immune system) to attack and destroy cancer cells. Other kidney cancer treatment options work differently:

  • Surgery – The primary treatment for kidney cancer is typically surgery, which may involve a partial nephrectomy in which a portion of the affected kidney is removed along with the tumor, or a radical nephrectomy in which the entire affected kidney and potentially nearby adrenal glands, lymph nodes and fatty tissue are removed.
  • Arterial embolization – In cases where surgery is not an option due to the tumor’s large size or invasive nature, arterial embolization may be used. This procedure involves manually cutting off blood supply to the tumor using small pieces of a gelatin sponge, beads or a glue-like material. This causes the cancer cells to die off which can shrink the tumor and potentially allow for safe surgical removal. It can also help reduce kidney cancer symptoms.
  • Ablation – Extremely cold gas or high-energy radio waves can be used to destroy cancer cells via ablation, in which a hollow needle-like probe is precisely directed to the tumor with the assistance of imaging like ultrasound, CT or MRI scans. In cryoablation, an ice ball at the tip of the probe is used to freeze and destroy the tumor. In radiofrequency ablation, an electric current kills the cancer cells with heat.
  • Targeted therapies – Cancer cells have specific proteins that healthy cells do not have, and targeted therapies identify those proteins to locate and destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed.
  • Radiation therapies – External beam radiation therapy (delivered via a machine from outside the patient’s body) or internal radiation therapy (delivered via needles, catheters or seeds) can be used to slow the growth of kidney cancer, destroy cancer cells and help alleviate pain and other symptoms.
  • Chemotherapy – Kidney cancer is often resistant to chemotherapy, but it can be effective for treating cancer that has spread throughout the body or in cases where targeted therapy and immunotherapy have proven ineffective.

Who is eligible for kidney cancer immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is typically used to treat stage 3 or 4 kidney cancer, or as adjuvant therapy that’s given after surgery to help prevent recurrence. Your oncology team will take into account the size and stage of your tumor, your previous treatment history, your overall health and more to determine if immunotherapy is right for you and if so, which type is most appropriate.

Moffitt’s approach to kidney cancer immunotherapy

Moffitt Cancer Center’s Urologic Oncology Program has a renowned kidney cancer team that comprises physicians from multiple specialties who collaborate to develop an individualized treatment plan for every patient. This is especially important for treatment options like immunotherapy, which are often integrated alongside other therapies and require an experienced team to manage possible treatment-related side effects. A multispecialty approach ensures that patients are able to see the best possible outcomes and experience a high quality of life.

Moffitt is known for its groundbreaking research and robust clinical trials program, which includes immunotherapy options for the treatment of kidney cancer. These efforts, along with our comprehensive clinical treatment and supportive care, have earned us designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute.

To learn more about how immunotherapy is used for treating kidney cancer or to consult with an oncologist specializing in the treatment of kidney cancer, contact Moffitt by calling 1-888-663-3488, or complete a new patient registration form online. Referrals are not required to visit Moffitt.


Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors - NCI
Treating Kidney Cancer | American Cancer Society
Immunotherapy for Kidney Cancer
Kidney Cancer: Types of Treatment