Kidney Cancer (Adult) Renal Cell Carcinoma Overview

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Treating Kidney Cancer TOPICS

Biologic therapy (immunotherapy) for kidney cancer

The goal of biologic therapy is to boost the body’s own immune system to help fight off or destroy cancer cells. Because biologic therapy can be hard to give and can cause serious side effects, many doctors now save it for people who have advanced kidney cancers that don’t respond to targeted drugs.


The main immunotherapy drugs used for kidney cancer are cytokines (man-made versions of immune system proteins), such as interleukin-2 (IL-2) and interferon-alfa. These drugs can shrink kidney cancers in a small number of patients.

The side effects of these drugs can be severe and, rarely, fatal. For this reason, this treatment is only given by doctors experienced in their use, often in the hospital.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

Cancer cells use immune system checkpoints in the body to help avoid being found and destroyed by the immune system. For example, they often have a protein called PD-L1 on their surface that helps them evade the immune system. Newer drugs that block this PD-L1 protein, or the PD-1 protein on immune cells, can help the immune system recognize the cancer cells and attack them. Some of these drugs have shown a lot of promise against advanced kidney cancers, usually after other treatments have been tried.

To learn more about specific biologic therapies, please see our document Kidney Cancer - (Adult) Renal Cell Carcinoma.

Last Medical Review: 04/29/2014
Last Revised: 11/23/2015