Research in kidney cancer

We are always learning more about cancer. Researchers and healthcare professionals use what they learn from research studies to develop better ways to treat kidney cancer. The following is a selection of research showing promise for treating kidney cancer.

We’ve included information from the following sources. Each item has an identity number that links to a brief overview (abstract).

  • PubMed, US National Library of Medicine (PMID)
  • Canadian Cancer Trials and (NCT)

Targeted therapy

Sunitinib (Sutent) is one of the most common targeted therapy drugs used to treat kidney cancer. Researchers are trying different ways to use sunitinib to improve treatment. One study, called CARMENA, looked at how best to use sunitinib to treat kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of the body (metastatic kidney cancer). CARMENA compared giving sunitinib after surgery to remove the kidney and as much as the cancer as possible (cytoreductive nephrectomy) to only giving sunitinib (without surgery). It showed that overall survival was similar in both cases, which means that not all people with metastatic kidney cancer need to have a cytoreductive nephrectomy before starting targeted therapy (New England Journal of Medicine, PMID 29860937).

Lenvatinib (Lenvima) with either everolimus (Afinitor) or pembrolizumab (Keytruda) (an immunotherapy drug) may be a treatment option for advanced kidney cancer. A clinical trial is studying how effective these combinations are compared to sunitinib alone (Canadian Cancer Trials, NCT 02811861).


The following is noteworthy research in immunotherapy for kidney cancer.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are types of immunotherapy drugs called monoclonal antibodies. They are often used to treat advanced and metastatic kidney cancer.

Nivolumab (Opdivo) is currently being studied in a clinical trial. Researchers are trying to find out whether or not giving nivolumab before and after a nephrectomy is more effective than a nephrectomy alone for localized kidney cancer (, NCT 03055013). Another clinical trial is testing how effective and safe nivolumab combined with different immunotherapy drugs, including relatlimab and BMS-986205, are at treating advanced kidney cancer compared to nivolumab and ipilimumab (Yervoy) (Canadian Cancer Trials, NCT 02996110).

Immunotherapy after a nephrectomy may be a treatment option for kidney cancer that has an intermediate to high risk of recurring or spreading after surgery. Researchers are conducting clinical trials to see how safe and effective these 2 immunotherapy drugs are when given after a nephrectomy:

  • pembrolizumab (Keytruda) (Canadian Cancer Trials, NCT 03142334)
  • atezolizumab (Tecentriq) (Canadian Cancer Trials, NCT 03024996)

Avelumab (Bavencio) is a new immune checkpoint inhibitor. Researchers are studying this drug in a clinical trial to see if combining it with the targeted therapy drug axitinib (Inlyta) is more effective at treating advanced kidney cancer than using another targeted therapy drug (sunitinib) alone (Canadian Cancer Trials, NCT 02684006).

Cancer vaccines

Cancer vaccines are a type of immunotherapy that helps strengthen or restore the immune system’s ability to find and destroy cancer.

Dendritic cell vaccines (also called dendritic cell therapy) are made from a person’s white blood cells (immune cells that help fight infection and disease). In the lab, the white blood cells are exposed to cancer cells, proteins found on cancer cells or chemicals. After this exposure, the white cells turn into a specialized type of white blood cell called a dendritic cell. The dendritic cells are then injected back into the person to help other immune cells in the body find and attack cancer cells. Researchers are trying to find out if dendritic cell vaccines could be a treatment for metastatic kidney cancer or recurrent kidney cancer (Therapeutic Apheresis and Dialysis, PMID 29851270).

Antigen vaccines use proteins or parts of proteins (called antigens) that are only found in some cancers or that are found in higher than normal amounts on cancer cells. When the antigen vaccine is injected into the person, the vaccine causes an immune response that helps the body attack cancer cells. Researchers have begun looking at antigen vaccines to see if they could be a treatment for metastatic kidney cancer (Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy, PMID 27757561; Canadian Cancer Trials, NCT 03289962).

Radiation therapy

Researchers are looking for better ways to find kidney cancer that has spread to the bone to help them plan stereotactic body radiation therapy. One study found that an MRI gave a more accurate estimate of the actual tumour size compared to a CT scan, leading to more effective doses of radiation therapy (Annals of Palliative Medicine, PMID 28866897).

Transarterial chemoembolization (TACE)

Transarterial chemoembolization (TACE) uses chemotherapy drugs to cut off a tumour’s blood supply and traps the chemotherapy inside the tumour. Early research shows that TACE, when used with a chemotherapy drug called doxorubicin (Adriamycin), is safe and significantly more effective at treating localized renal cell carcinoma than just blocking the blood supply without the use of chemotherapy (Journal of Vascular and Interventional Radiology, PMID 28947365).

Cryoablation therapy

Cryoablation (a type of ablation therapy) is a procedure that destroys cancer cells by freezing them. Early research suggests that combining cryoablation with the body’s own natural killer (NK) cells enhances immune function, effectively treats the cancer and improves the quality of life of people with advanced renal cell carcinoma than cryoablation alone (Immunology Letters, PMID 28274792).

Learn more about cancer research

Researchers continue to try to find out more about kidney cancer. Clinical trials are research studies that test new ways to treat kidney cancer. They also look at ways to prevent, find and manage cancer.

Clinical trials provide information about the safety and effectiveness of new approaches to see if they should become widely available. Most of the standard treatments for kidney cancer were first shown to be effective through clinical trials.

Find out more about clinical trials.