Immunotherapy for Bladder Cancer

Immunotherapy is the use of medicines to help a person’s own immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells. Immunotherapy can sometimes be used to treat bladder cancer.

Intravesical BCG (for some early-stage cancers)

BCG is a type of bacteria related to the one that causes tuberculosis. While it doesn’t usually cause a person to get sick, it can help trigger an immune response. BCG can be put directly into the bladder (as a liquid) through a catheter. This activates immune system cells in the bladder, which in turn can attack bladder cancer cells.

For some early-stage cancers, BCG can be used after transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT) to help keep the cancer from coming back. For more details on this treatment, see the section on intravesical therapy.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors (for advanced cancers)

An important part of the immune system is its ability to keep itself from attacking normal cells in the body. To do this, it uses “checkpoints” – molecules on immune cells that need to be turned on (or off) to start an immune response. Cancer cells sometimes use these checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system. But newer drugs that target these checkpoints hold a lot of promise as cancer treatments.

Atezolizumab (Tecentriq)durvalumab (Imfinzi), and avelumab (Bavencio) are drugs that target PD-L1, a protein on cells (including some cancer cells) that helps keep the immune system from attacking them. By blocking PD-L1, these drugs boost the immune response against the cancer cells. This can shrink some tumors or slow their growth.

Nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda) target PD-1, another protein that normally helps keep the immune system in check. Blocking PD-1 can help the immune system attack the cancer cells.

Any of these drugs can be used in people with advanced bladder that starts growing again after chemotherapy. Atezolizumab and pembrolizumab can also be used in people who can't get the chemo drug cisplatin for some reason.

These drugs are given as intravenous (IV) infusions, typically every 2 or 3 weeks.

Possible side effects

Common side effects of these drugs include fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, fever, urinary tract infections, rash, diarrhea, and constipation.

Less often, more serious side effects can occur. These drugs work by basically removing the brakes on the body’s immune system. Sometimes the immune system starts attacking other parts of the body, which can cause serious or even life-threatening problems in the lungs, intestines, liver, hormone-making glands, or other organs.

It’s very important to report any new side effects to your health care team promptly. If serious side effects do occur, treatment may need to be stopped and you may get high doses of corticosteroids to suppress your immune system.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: January 26, 2016 Last Revised: May 18, 2017

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