Kidney (Renal) Cancer

Cancer that develops in the kidneys is often referred to as renal cancer. The kidneys are a pair of bean-shaped organs located in the back of the abdomen. There is one on each side of the spine, and they’re protected by the lower rib cage. Each kidney is about the size of a fist. The most common type of kidney cancer affects the lining of the tubules (very small tubes) inside the kidneys. This type of cancer is called renal cell carcinoma (RCC) (see Figure below). RCC begins when abnormal cells in the kidneys grow out of control and form one or more masses – or tumors – in the kidney.

Treatment options for kidney cancer include surgery, targeted therapy and immunotherapy, used alone or together. Surgery is often the primary treatment for most kidney cancers. Because kidney cancer is usually resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, targeted therapy is typically the first line of treatment for advanced kidney cancer; however, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are occasionally used. This means the development of additional targeted therapies and immunotherapies is extremely important in the fight against this disease.

Different types of immunotherapies are available to treat kidney cancer. One type is a laboratory-made cytokine that can be used to shrink tumors and reduce the risk of recurrence. Cytokines are proteins made naturally in the body or made in a laboratory that act primarily by helping the various cells of the body’s immune system communicate. They are capable of stimulating the immune system or slowing it down to help it fight cancer. Another type of immunotherapy used to treat kidney cancer is called an immune checkpoint inhibitor, which is a drug that blocks specific proteins and receptors from triggering a slowdown of the immune system.

Immunotherapy offers hope for people with kidney cancer, but the currently approved immunotherapy drugs are not approved for treating all stages of the disease. Researchers are working to learn more about kidney cancer, the best ways to treat it and which patients can benefit the most from these treatments. Personalized vaccines are also being evaluated in clinical trials (see Clinical Trials). Talk with your doctor to determine if a clinical trial is right for you.


FDA-Approved Immunotherapies for Kidney (Renal) Cancer*
As of 12/5/17
interferon alpha
interleukin-2 (Aldesleukin, Proleukin)
nivolumab (Opdivo)
*Each therapy is prescribed based on specific criteria. Discuss your options
with your doctor.

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