Biologic Therapy for Kidney Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, kidney cancer affects nearly 65,000 people every year and, as with many types of cancer, the main treatment is often surgery to remove the tumor and surrounding cancer cells.

The decision to perform surgery or another type of treatment depends on your age, your health and ability to handle the treatment, the size and location of the tumor, and whether the kidney cancer has spread to other parts of your body.

In addition to surgery, kidney cancer treatment options include targeted therapy using drugs to destroy the cancer and another drug-based approach called biologic therapy.

How biologic therapy works

Biologic (or biological) therapy is a type of cancer treatment that focuses on strengthening your body's own immune system rather than destroying the cancer cells with medication. Also called immunotherapy, the idea is to help your immune system better defend your body and fight off the cancer cells. Biologic therapy also works by helping to shrink existing tumors, slow their progression, and prevent kidney cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.

Biologic therapy can shrink tumors by about half in 10 to 20 percent of people with kidney cancer. For years, it was the primary treatment for this cancer, but because of uncomfortable and serious side effects, biologic therapy is now usually used only after targeted therapy has failed.

Types of biologic therapy

Depending on the drug, biologic therapy may be given as pills, by injection, or through an IV. The main medications used in biologic therapy for kidney cancer are cytokines, proteins known to "turn on" the immune system. Interferon-alpha and interleukin-2 (IL-2) are the most commonly used cytokines. IL-2 tends to offer longer lasting effects in people who respond well to it, but it is effective in only a small percentage of people who take it.

Side effects

As with many cancer treatments, biologic therapy does cause side effects, though medications are available to help ease some of them.

Serious side effects from cytokines can include:

  • Changes in mental function

  • Lowered blood pressure

  • Diarrhea

  • Pain in the abdomen

  • Chills with a high fever

  • Feeling extremely fatigued

  • Rapidly beating heart

Other, more severe side effects of cytokines are possible:

  • Heart attack

  • Bleeding in the intestines

  • A buildup of fluid in the lungs

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Damage to the kidneys

In rare cases, side effects can be fatal. Because of the risk of these side effects, biologic therapy is usually used to treat kidney cancer only in people who are otherwise in good overall health and can withstand the difficult treatment.

Biologic therapy is still being studied to find better ways to use these drugs to fight cancer.