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Biologic therapy may be used in the treatment of kidney cancer that has spread.

Biologic Therapy

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses drugs to improve the way your body’s immune system fights disease. Your immune system is your body’s natural defense against disease. Biologic therapy attempts to repair, stimulate, or enhance the immune system so that it can fight the cancer more effectively. These therapies can be used to fight cancer or to reduce the side effects that may be caused by some cancer treatments.

Examples of agents used to treat kidney cancer include interferon and interleukin 2 (also known as IL-2, aldesleukin, or proleukin).

Interleukin 2 (IL-2) is approved for metastatic kidney cancer, when the disease has spread to other places in the body. The medicine is given by shots under the skin or by IV. Treatment may be given in cycles separated by a rest period. Although only about one in six patients with renal cell carcinoma have shrinkage of their cancer with IL-2, some of these patients have disappearance of their cancer that can be long lasting. Unfortunately, the medicine has many side effects and is not appropriate for all patients with renal cell carcinoma.

A combination treatment of bevacizumab and interferon-alpha is used for patients with kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. The medicines are given by IV and work by preventing the growth of new blood vessels to the tumor. The most common side effects are hypertension and gastrointestinal bleeding or perforation.


Interleukin 2 produces responses in 15% of kidney cancer patients. Interferon response rate is about 15%. The combination of interferon with other chemotherapy drugs and IL-2 increases the response rate.

Side Effects

Side effects may include:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Low blood pressure
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Rash
  • Shortness of breath

Side effects for the bevacizumab and interferon alpha combination may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Protein in the urine
  • High blood pressure
  • Bleeding
Targeted Therapy

These medications attempt to interfere with the growth of the tumor by blocking the formation of new blood vessels around the tumor.

Sorafenib (Nexavar)

Sorafenib (Nexavar) targets several different pathways of tumor growth. The most common side effects include:

  • Rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Hypertension
  • Redness
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Blisters on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
  • Nerve damage

Sunitinib (Sutent)

Sunitinib (Sutent) attacks both blood vessel growth and other targets that stimulate cancer cell growth. The results show tumor shrinkage in one third of the patients treated. Side effects may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Change in skin color
  • Mouth irritation
  • Weakness
  • Altered taste
  • Tiredness
  • Hypertension
  • Bleeding
  • Hypothyroidism

Temsirolimus (Torisel)

Temsirolimus (Torisel) is an IV medicine used in advanced kidney cancer, which also works to inhibit cell growth. The most common side effects include:

  • Skin rash
  • Feeling weak
  • Mouth irritation
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fluid buildup in the face or legs
  • Increases in blood sugar and cholesterol levels

Pazopanib (Votrient)

Pazopanib (Votrient) is approved for the treatment of advanced kidney cancer. It works by preventing the growth of new blood vessels to tumors. The most common side effects include:


About kidney cancer. Kidney Cancer Association website. Available at: . Updated January 29, 2013. Accessed June 24, 2013.

Escudier B, Eisen T, Standler WM, et al. Sorafenid in advanced clear-cell renal cancer carcinoma. N Engl Med . 2007; 356:125

Kidney cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: . Accessed June 24, 2013.

Kidney cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: . Accessed June 24, 2013.

Rini BI, Halabi S, et al. Phase III trial of bevacizumab plus interferon alfa versus interferon alfa monotherapy in patients with metastatic renal cell carcinoma: final results of CALGB 90206. J Clin Oncol . 2010 May 1;28(13):2137-2143.

Last reviewed May 2015 by Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP ; Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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