Pembrolizumab Treatment for Kidney Cancer

Pembrolizumab treatment for kidney cancer, particularly advanced renal cell carcinoma (RCC), represents a significant advancement in immunotherapy. Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2019, it is specifically indicated in combination with axitinib for the first-line treatment of advanced RCC, marking a substantial progress in managing this type of cancer.

Pembrolizumab is a monoclonal antibody functioning as an immune checkpoint inhibitor. It targets the programmed death-1 (PD-1) receptor on T cells, a crucial component of the immune response. By inhibiting PD-1, pembrolizumab prevents cancer cells from using PD-1 pathways to escape immune detection, thereby boosting the immune system's ability to combat cancer cells.

This drug, in combination with axitinib, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, is indicated as a first-line treatment for patients with advanced RCC. This combination is particularly effective for patients who have not previously received therapy for advanced disease.

Administered via intravenous (IV) infusion in a clinical setting, pembrolizumab's dosage and schedule are tailored to the patient's specific condition and response to treatment. The combination with oral axitinib is designed to optimize treatment efficacy.

Clinical trials have demonstrated significant improvements in progression-free and overall survival for patients treated with pembrolizumab and axitinib, compared to sunitinib, a standard treatment for advanced RCC. The combination therapy has shown higher response rates and delayed disease progression in patients with advanced RCC.

Common side effects of pembrolizumab include fatigue, diarrhea, liver enzyme elevations, rash, and hypothyroidism. Like other immunotherapies, pembrolizumab can cause immune-related adverse effects (irAEs) such as colitis, hepatitis, and pneumonitis. Managing these side effects involves close monitoring, dose adjustments, and possibly the use of corticosteroids or other immunosuppressive drugs for severe irAEs.

Patients receiving pembrolizumab require frequent monitoring to manage side effects and evaluate the treatment's effectiveness. Treatment with pembrolizumab necessitates a coordinated approach, often involving oncologists, nurses, and other specialists.

The introduction of pembrolizumab for advanced RCC, especially when combined with axitinib, has provided a new and effective option for patients with this challenging form of cancer. This approval underscores the growing role of immunotherapy in cancer treatment, offering improved outcomes and the potential for extended survival in advanced RCC.


Rini BI, Plimack ER, Stus V, et al. Pembrolizumab plus Axitinib versus Sunitinib for Advanced Renal-Cell Carcinoma. N Engl J Med. 2019;380(12):1116-1127.


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