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Immunotherapy for Kidney Cancer

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  • Kidney Cancer
  • Treatment Options
  • CRI's Impact
  • Clinical Trials

How is Immunotherapy Changing the Outlook for Patients with Kidney Cancer?

Reviewed By: Elke Jäger, M.D.
Krankenhaus Nordwest, Frankfurt, Germany

Kidney cancer—also called renal cell cancer—is one of the major types of cancer for which new immune-based cancer treatments are currently in development. This page features information on kidney cancer and immunotherapy clinical trials for kidney cancer patients, and highlights the Cancer Research Institute’s role in working to bring effective immune-based cancer treatments to kidney cancer patients.

Brief Statistics

Approximately 62,700 new cases of kidney cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2016, including cancer of the renal pelvis and Wilms tumor, a childhood cancer. There will be approximately 14,240 deaths. Kidney cancer is more common in older people (>55 years old) and affects men more often than women.

The kidney is the organ that filters blood, cleaning out wastes and making urine. About 9 out of every 10 kidney cancers are renal cell carcinomas—cancers that form in the lining of the tubules inside the kidney. A person can live with only one functioning kidney.

In its early stages, kidney cancer typically has no symptoms. As a tumor grows, symptoms may include blood in the urine, pain or a lump in the lower back or abdomen, fatigue, weight loss, and swelling in the ankles or legs. If kidney cancer is diagnosed while the cancer is still local (has not spread beyond the kidney), the 5-year survival rate is 92%. Often a tumor will be discovered when a patient has a CT scan or ultrasound for another reason. Like most cancers, kidney cancer is difficult to treat once it has spread to other parts of the body. Metastatic kidney cancer has a 5-year-survival rate of 12%.

Risk factors for kidney cancer include tobacco use, obesity, high blood pressure, chronic renal failure, exposure to certain industrial chemicals, such as trichloroethylene, and radiation.

Most renal cell carcinomas are a subtype called clear cell carcinoma. About 7 out of 10 people with renal cell carcinoma have this kind of cancer.


Surgery is the primary treatment for most kidney cancers. Many surgeries can be performed laparoscopically, i.e., through a minimally invasive surgical procedure. Ablation therapy using either heat or cold to destroy the tumor may be an option for patients who are not good candidates for surgery. Kidney cancer tends to be resistant to both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Therefore, targeted therapies and immune-based treatments are important components of treatment for advanced kidney cancer.

Several immunotherapies have been approved by the FDA for use in advanced kidney cancers, including the anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor nivolumab, the combination of nivolumab (Opdivo®) and the anti-CTLA-4 checkpoint inhibitor ipilimumab (Yervoy®), the anti-VEGF antibody bevacizumab (Avastin®), and the cytokine aldesleukin (Proleukein®).

When Are Clinical Trials Recommended?

Currently available treatments for kidney cancer are less than optimal. Therefore, enrolling in a clinical trial is often the best and safest option for patients with kidney cancer.

For a complete list of open clinical trials for kidney cancer, see our Clinical Trial Finder.

CRI Contributions and Impact

CRI has a long history of supporting research that has improved the treatment of kidney cancer, from research on IL-2 and interferon to current treatment approaches using checkpoint blockade. In 1978, Jordan Gutterman, M.D., received funding from CRI to conduct a clinical trial of interferon-alpha in human patients. The study showed that kidney cancer is sensitive to interferon and paved the way for the FDA approval of this treatment.[2]

In 1993, CRI researchers Drew Pardoll, M.D., Ph.D., Glenn Dranoff, M.D., Elizabeth Jaffee, M.D., Hyam Levitsky, M.D., and colleagues conducted preclinical studies showing that a vaccine composed of tumor cells irradiated and genetically modified to produce immune system growth factor GM-CSF (granulocyte macrophage colony-stimulating factor) could induce potent, specific, and long-lasting anti-tumor immunity in multiple mouse tumor models. Based on these preclinical findings, CRI provided funding for a phase I clinical trial to test the vaccine in patients with metastatic renal cell carcinoma. This work led to the therapeutic cancer vaccine GVAX.

In 1999, CRI researchers including Neil Bander, M.D., Dirk Jäger, M.D., Elke Jäger, M.D., Alexander Knuth, M.D., and Lloyd J. Old, M.D., used SEREX technology to identify tumor-associated antigens in patients with renal cell carcinoma.[3] This work provided an important foundation for the idea that renal cancer is immunogenic—able to be recognized by the immune system.

In 2010, CRI researchers Drew Pardoll, M.D., Ph.D., Susan Topalian, M.D., and colleagues completed a phase I study showing that a PD-1-specific monoclonal antibody induces frequent tumor regressions in patients with advanced melanoma, renal cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer with very low rates of toxicity. This study helped establish that PD-1 blockade is a promising new therapy for multiple types of cancers, including ones for which currently approved therapies are not effective.[4]

In 2012, Jeffrey Rathmell, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University, was awarded a Clinic and Laboratory Integration Program (CLIP) grant from CRI to study the metabolism of kidney cancer cells and the immune cells that surround them. Rathmell and colleagues have shown that T cells that mediate anti-tumor immunity are highly dependent on glucose. If access to glucose is limited, T cells fail to function and instead can become regulatory T cells that suppress immunity. But kidney cancer needs glucose too, and this shared need for glucose fosters competition for nutrients within the tumor that may suppress anti-tumor immunity.  These studies may provide a new way to augment anti-tumor immunity by manipulating glucose metabolism. His work also suggests that therapies designed to block immune checkpoints, such as anti-PD-1 antibodies, may act in part by shifting this metabolic competition back in favor of immune cells.

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Kidney Cancer Statistics

>55 Years Age most commonly affected by kidney cancer
9 out of 10 Kidney cancers are renal cell carcinomas
6 Types of immunotherapy clinical trials

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Clinical Trials for Kidney Cancer

The first suggestion that kidney cancer might be a good target for immunotherapy came from the observation that patients with metastatic kidney cancer occasionally experienced spontaneous regressions after surgical removal of the primary tumor. Immunotherapies in the form of immune-stimulating chemicals called cytokines have been used for more than a decade to treat kidney cancer. The cytokines interleukin-2 (IL-2) and interferon-alpha cause kidney cancers to shrink in approximately 10%-20% of patients, and provide durable remissions in a subset of these patients. In the recent past, IL-2 was the most common first-line therapy for advanced kidney cancer, but because it can have serious side effects many doctors now only use it for cancers that are not responding to targeted therapies.

Beyond cytokines and targeted therapies, several newer immunotherapies are becoming important in the treatment of kidney cancer. They fall into six broad categories: checkpoint inhibitors and immune modulators, cancer vaccines, adoptive cell therapy, monoclonal antibodies, cytokines, and adjuvant immunotherapies. These therapies for kidney cancer are still in clinical testing, but their successful use in other types of cancers suggests that they may ultimately prove beneficial for kidney cancer patients as well.

  • Checkpoint Inhibitors
  • Adoptive Cell Therapy
  • Monoclonal Antibodies
  • Cytokines
  • Adjuvant Immunotherapies

A promising avenue of clinical research in kidney cancer is the use of immune checkpoint inhibitors. These treatments work by targeting molecules that serve as checks and balances on immune responses. By blocking these inhibitory molecules or, alternatively, activating stimulatory molecules, these treatments are designed to unleash or enhance pre-existing anti-cancer immune responses. The following trials are currently recruiting patients:

Phase III
  • A phase III study of atezolizumab (MPDL3280A), a PD-L1 antibody, in combination with bevacizumab (Avastin) versus sunitinib (Sutent) in patients with untreated advanced renal cell carcinoma (NCT02420821).  
Phase I/II
  • A phase I/II study of atezolizumab (MPDL3280A), a PD-L1 antibody, and varlilumab (CDX-1127), an anti-CD27 antibody, in patients with advanced cancer, including kidney cancer (NCT02543645).  
  • A phase I/II study to test LAG525, an antibody that targets LAG-3, +/- PDR001, a PD-1 antibody, in patients with advanced cancer, including renal cancer (NCT02460224).
  • A phase I/II study to test MBG453, an antibody that targets TIM-3, +/- PDR001, a PD-1 antibody, in patients with advanced cancer, including renal cancer (NCT02608268).
Phase I
  • A phase I trial to test BMS-986016, a LAG-3 antibody, with or without nivolumab (anti-PD-1), in patients with solid tumors, including renal cell cancer (NCT01968109).
  • A phase I study testing pembrolizumab (Keytruda, MK-3475) in patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma (NCT02014636).
  • A phase I study to test pembrolizumab (Keytruda, MK-3475) for patients with renal cell cancer, in combination with a JAK inhibitor, INCB039110, or a PI3K-delta inhibitor, INCB050465 (NCT02646748).
  • A phase I study to test pembrolizumab (Keytruda, MK-3475) combined with MGA217, an antibody that targets B7-H3, in patients with refractory cancer, including clear cell renal cell cancer (NCT02475213).
  • A phase I trial of MK-4166, a GITR antibody, +/- pembrolizumab in patients with advanced cancer (NCT02132754).
  • A phase I study to test ipilimumab (Yervoy) combined with MGA217, an antibody that targets B7-H3, in patients with refractory cancer, including clear cell renal cell cancer (NCT02381314).
  • A phase I study of CPI-444, which targets the adenosine-A2A receptor that suppresses the anti-tumor activity of immune cells, +/- atezolizumab (MPDL3280A), a PD-L1 antibody, for patients with advanced cancer, including renal cell cancer (NCT02655822).  
  • A phase I trial of durvalumab (MEDI4736), an anti-PD-L1 antibody, and tremelimumab, an anti-CTLA-4 antibody, for patients with advanced solid tumors, including renal cell cancer (NCT01975831). This trial is sponsored by the Cancer Research Institute.
  • A phase I study to test MGA217, an antibody that targets B7-H3, in patients with refractory cancer, including renal cell cancer (NCT01391143).
  • A phase I study to test MGD009, a B7-H3 x CD3 DART protein, in patients with unresectable or metastatic B7-H3-expressing cancer, including clear cell renal cell cancer (NCT02628535).
  • A phase I trial testing SGN-CD70A, an antibody that targets CD70, in renal cell cancer patients (NCT02216890).
  • A phase I study of avelumab (MSB0010718C), a PD-L1 antibody, for patients with advanced renal cell cancer (NCT02493751).

In this approach, immune cells are removed from a patient, genetically modified or treated with chemicals to enhance their activity, and then re-introduced into the patient with the goal of improving the immune system’s anti-cancer response.

  • A phase II/III trial to test ImmuniCell in patients with advanced renal cell cancer (NCT02459067).
  • A phase I trial to test natural killer (NK) cells, important innate immune cells, in patients with advanced cancer, including kidney cancer (NCT00720785).

Monoclonal antibodies are molecules, generated in the lab, that target specific antigens on tumors. Several monoclonal antibodies are currently being tested in clinical trials:

  • A phase I/II trial of TRC105, an antibody targeting endoglin, which is a protein that is overexpressed on endothelial cells and is essential for angiogenesis, in patients with advanced or metastatic renal cell cancer (NCT01806064).
  • A phase I/II trial testing LY2875358, an antibody targeting mesenchymal-epithelial transition factor (MET), which is involved in tumor cell proliferation and resistance, in patients with advanced cancer, including renal cell cancer (NCT02082210).
  • A phase I/II trial testing IMMU-132, an antibody-drug conjugate targeting Τrop-2, in patients with epithelial cancers, including renal cell cancer

Cytokines are messenger molecules that help control the growth and activity of immune system cells.

  • A phase I study testing interleukin 15 (IL-15) in patients with metastatic cancers, including renal cell cancer (NCT02452268).

Adjuvants are substances that are either used alone or combined with other immunotherapies to boost the immune response. Some adjuvant immunotherapies use ligands—molecules that bind to proteins such as receptors—to help control the immune response. These ligands can be either stimulating (agonists) or blocking (antagonists).

  • A phase I/II trial of X4P-001, which targets the CXCR4 receptor pathway to block the recruitment of immunosuppressive cells, in patients with advanced renal cell cancer (NCT02667886).
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National Cancer Institute Physician Data Query (PDQ); American Cancer Society Facts & Figures 2016;; CRI documents

Updated March 2016

[1] Jennifer Cudris and Jaime R. Merchan. “Immunotherapy in Renal Carcinoma, in Advances in Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy. Current Cancer Research 2014, pp 125-147.

[2] Gutterman JU, Fine S, Quesada J, Horning SJ, Levine JF, Alexanian R, Bernhardt L, Kramer M, Spiegel H, Colburn W, Trown P, Merigan T, Dziewanowski Z. Recombinant leukocyte A interferon: pharmacokinetics, single-dose tolerance, and biologic effects in cancer patients. Ann Intern Med 1982 May; 96: 549-556. (PMID: 6176159)

[3] Scanlan, M. J., Gordan, J. D., Williamson, B., Stockert, E., Bander, N. H., Jongeneel, V., Gure, A. O., Jäger, D., Jäger, E., Knuth, A., Chen, Y.-T. and Old, L. J. Antigens recognized by autologous antibody in patients with renal-cell carcinoma. Int. J. Cancer 1999; 83: 456–464. (PMID: 10508479)

[4] Brahmer JR, Drake CG, Wollner I, Powderly JD, Picus J, Sharfman WH, Stankevich E, Pons A, Salay TM, McMiller TL, Gilson MM, Wang C, Selby M, Taube JM, Anders R, Chen L, Korman AJ, Pardoll DM, Lowy I, Topalian SL. Phase I study of single-agent anti-programmed death-1 (MDX-1106) in refractory solid tumors: safety, clinical activity, pharmacodynamics, and immunologic correlates. J Clin Oncol 2010 Jul 1; 28: 3167-3175. (PMID: 20516446)

*Immunotherapy results may vary from patient to patient.