Kidney Cancer: Biologic Therapy

Biologic therapy is a type of treatment for cancer that uses your body’s own immune system. It’s also known as immunotherapy. It uses medicines that boost certain parts of the immune system. This helps your body fight off cancer cells. The treatments are known as biologic medicines. They help your immune cells recognize and attack the cancer cells. It is mainly used if targeted therapy does not work. Targeted therapy is another kind of treatment done with medicine.

How biologic therapy works

Biologic therapy helps strengthen your body's own immune system. This helps your immune system kill the cancer cells. Biologic therapy works by helping to shrink tumors, slow their growth, and prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. The treatment uses proteins made in a lab. These proteins are also made naturally by your immune system. The proteins are called cytokines.

Types of biologic therapy

Biologic therapy may be given as pills, by injection, or through an IV. There are the 2 main cytokines used in biologic therapy:

  • Interferon alpha

  • Interleukin-2

Biologic therapy may be given after surgery. Or it may be given along with other treatments. Interferon alpha is most often given with another medicine called bevacizumab. Interleukin-2 only works in a small number of people, but gives longer-lasting effects when it works.

Low or moderate doses may give given as outpatient therapy. This means you don’t need to stay overnight in a hospital. High doses may work better for some people. High-dose therapy is given in a hospital with experience using the treatment.

Biologic therapy side effects

Like most types of cancer treatment, biologic therapy causes side effects. Some can be severe. They usually get better after the treatment ends. Side effects of depend on the type and amount of medicines you’re taking. They vary from person to person.

Possible side effects include:

  • Appetite loss

  • Dizziness

  • Drowsiness

  • Headaches, muscle aches, joint aches, or bone pain

  • Redness, swelling, or discomfort at the injection site

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Skin rash or dryness

  • Taste changes or metallic taste in mouth

  • Less urination

  • Weight gain

Serious side effects can include:

  • Changes in mental function

  • Low blood pressure

  • Diarrhea

  • Pain in the belly (abdomen)

  • Chills with a high fever

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Fast heartbeat

Other severe side effects are possible, such as:

  • Heart attack

  • Bleeding in the intestines

  • Buildup of fluid in the lungs

  • Trouble breathing

  • Damage to the kidneys

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

While you’re on biologic therapy

It may be helpful to keep a diary of your side effects. Write down physical, thinking, and emotional changes. A written list will make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your appointments. It will also make it easier for you to work with your medical team to make a plan to manage your side effects. 

Talking with your health care provider

Make sure to talk with your health care provider about these medicines and their affects. He or she will discuss the risks and benefits with you.