Targeted therapy for kidney cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Bertram Yuh, MD, MISM, MSHCPM, Urologic Surgeon, City of Hope | Duarte

This page was updated on June 2, 2023.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a type of renal cell or kidney cancer, formulating a comprehensive, personalized treatment plan is an important next step. One commonly used treatment option is targeted therapy, which works to stop or block cancer from growing by targeting certain molecules or genes.

How do targeted therapy drugs work?

Targeted therapy uses medications to block the specific genes, molecules or proteins fueling the kidney tumor’s growth. This makes it harder for the tumor to grow, reducing or eliminating the cancer.

While both chemotherapy and targeted therapy use medication to treat cancer, the advantage of targeted therapy is that it’s more specific. Unlike chemotherapy, which kills both healthy cells and cancer cells, targeted therapy may identify cancer cells without harming healthy cells. This may reduce discomfort and side effects for patients.

By first testing the cancer’s biomarkers, your care team determines which drug is most suitable for you, creating more accurate and tailored medical care. Usually, only one drug is used at a time, but if it isn’t successful, your care team may switch to an alternative. It’s also possible that some cancer types may become resistant to a particular type of drug.

Below are the most commonly used types of targeted therapy drugs for kidney cancer. They’re generally used for advanced cancer patients and for adjuvant therapy after surgery, which helps lower the chances of the cancer returning.

Anti-angiogenesis therapy

This type of targeted therapy works to stop the growth of blood vessels, called angiogenesis. A similar treatment stops certain proteins called tyrosine kinases found in cancer cells.

By blocking the growth of new blood vessels or proteins, these treatments stop the growth of cancer cells. This treatment is most often used for advanced kidney cancer.

Frequently used anti-angiogenesis drugs include:

  • Nexavar® (sorafenib)
  • Sutent® (sunitinib)
  • Votrient® (pazopanib)
  • Cabometyx® (cabozantinib)

mTOR inhibitors

mTOR inhibitors are another type of targeted therapy. These drugs work to block a protein known as mTOR, which helps kidney cancer cells grow.

mTOR inhibitor drugs include:

  • Afinitor® (everolimus)
  • Torisel® (temsirolimus)

Combinations of several therapies

In recent years, U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval has been granted for combinations of targeted therapy drugs, which includes a targeted therapy drug plus an immunotherapy drug. Immunotherapy works by using materials from your body’s immune system to kill cancer cells. Combination therapy is being used for advanced renal cell carcinoma.

How to prepare

Before you begin a course of targeted therapy, your care team will likely perform tests on the tumor to learn more about its genetic and molecular type. This helps them identify which type of drug is right for you.

They’ll let you know exactly how to take your medication and what to expect, but this is a good opportunity to ask any questions you may have, such as how the treatment may affect your ability to work. It’s hard to predict how you may feel after you begin treatment, so consider asking a friend or loved one to help you with household tasks or meal preparation.

What to expect

Each type of drug works in a slightly different way, but your care team can provide you with clear guidelines about how to take the medication and what to expect. This treatment type is given orally or intravenously (via an IV).

For medications taken orally, you’ll be instructed on how and when to take your pills. Because these medications are precisely measured to treat your type of cancer, it’s essential to follow your doctor’s orders exactly. This may also help your care team verify that the dosage is correct.

Some types of targeted therapies are administered via an IV, so these treatments are performed in a medical center. Your team will likely monitor you closely, whether the medications are oral or intravenous, making sure you’re comfortable throughout the process.

Side effects

Because each targeted therapy drug is unique, they may present slightly different side effects. Your care team can outline all of these for you and let you know what to expect.

However, some of the general side effects experienced with targeted therapies include:

  • Changes to your skin, hair or nails
  • Blood clots or slow wound healing
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Diarrhea
  • Liver problems
  • Damage to the gastrointestinal system (a rare side effect)

Side effects may be treated with additional medication and tend to subside once therapy is completed.

When will I see the results?

Throughout the course of targeted therapy, your care team will monitor your health closely to check the progress of your treatment. A range of medical tests—such as physical examinations, scans and blood tests—help your care team determine whether the medication is working.

If the treatment doesn’t seem successful, your care team may recommend an alternative medication type. Always ask your care team any questions you may have about your health, medication types or general concerns, as the more information you have, the more confident you may feel when it comes to making health decisions.

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