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Renal Cell Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

Health Professional Version

Stage IV and Recurrent Renal Cell Cancer

Stage IV renal cell cancer is defined by the American Joint Committee on Cancer's TNM classification system:[1]

  • T4, any N, M0
  • Any T, any N, M1

The prognosis for any treated renal cell cancer patient with progressing, recurring, or relapsing disease is poor, regardless of cell type or stage. Almost all patients with stage IV renal cell cancer are incurable. The question and selection of further treatment depends on many factors, including previous treatment and site of recurrence, as well as individual patient considerations. Carefully selected patients may benefit from surgical resection of localized metastatic disease, particularly if they have had a prolonged, disease-free interval since their primary therapy.

Local Therapy

Tumor embolization, external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT), and nephrectomy can aid in the palliation of symptoms caused by the primary tumor or related ectopic hormone or cytokine production. For patients with metastatic disease, two randomized studies have demonstrated an overall survival (OS) benefit in selected patients who have undergone initial cytoreductive nephrectomy prior to the administration of interferon-alpha.[2,3]

In the larger study, 246 patients were randomly assigned to either undergo a nephrectomy followed by interferon-alpha or receive interferon-alpha alone.[2] The median OS was 11.1 months when the primary tumor was removed first (95% confidence interval [CI], 9.2–16.5) compared with 8.1 months in the control arm (95% CI, 5.4–9.5; P = .05). In the smaller study, 85 patients with identical eligibility criteria were randomly assigned to treatment as in the larger study.[3] Patients who underwent nephrectomy before receiving interferon-alpha had a median OS of 17 months compared with an OS of 7 months in patients who received interferon-alpha alone (hazard ratio [HR], 0.54; 95% CI, 0.31–0.94; P = .03).

These studies were restricted to patients who were asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic, with a performance status (PS) of zero or one, according to the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG) rating scale; these patients were also considered to be candidates for postoperative immunotherapy.[2,3][Level of evidence: 1iiA] Whether the benefit of cytoreductive nephrectomy extends to patients who are not subsequently treated with interferon-alpha has not been tested.

Selected patients with solitary or a limited number of distant metastases can achieve prolonged survival with nephrectomy and surgical resection of the metastases.[4-9] Even patients with brain metastases had similar results.[10] The likelihood of achieving therapeutic benefit with this approach appears enhanced in patients with a long disease-free interval between the initial nephrectomy and the development of metastatic disease.

Cytokine Therapy

Cytokine therapy with interferon-alpha or interleukin-2 (IL-2) has been shown to induce objective responses, and interferon-alpha appears to have a modest impact on survival in selected patients. Interferon-alpha has approximately a 15% objective response rate in appropriately selected individuals.[11] In general, these patients have nonbulky pulmonary and/or soft tissue metastases with excellent PS ratings of zero or one, according to the ECOG rating scale, and the patients show no weight loss. The interferon-alpha doses used in studies reporting good response rates have been in an intermediate range (6–20 million units 3 times weekly). A Cochrane analysis of six randomized trials, with a total of 963 patients, indicated an HR for survival of 0.78 (CI, 0.67–0.90) or a weighted average improvement in survival of 2.6 months.[11][Level of evidence: 1iiA]

High-dose IL-2 produces a similar overall response rate to interferon-alpha, but approximately 5% of patients had durable complete remissions.[12-17] IL-2 has never been shown in a randomized, controlled trial to result in longer survival. High-dose IL-2 is used because it is the only systemic therapy that has been associated with inducing durable complete remissions, albeit in a small fraction (about 5%) of patients who are eligible for this treatment. The optimum dose of IL-2 is unknown. High-dose therapy appears to be associated with higher response rates but with more toxic effects. Low-dose inpatient regimens have activity against renal cell carcinoma with fewer toxic effects, especially hypotension, but have not been shown to be superior to placebo or any alternative regimen with regard to survival or quality of life.[18] Outpatient subcutaneous administration has also demonstrated responses with acceptable toxic effects but, again, with unclear survival or quality of life benefit.[19] Combinations of IL-2 and interferon-alpha have been studied, but outcomes have not been better with high-dose or low-dose IL-2 alone.[20,21]

Antiangiogenic and Other Targeted Therapy

A growing understanding of the biology of cancer in general, and renal cell carcinoma in particular, has led to the development and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of six new agents that target specific growth pathways. Two of the approved targeted therapies block the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), a serine/threonine protein kinase that regulates cell growth, division, and survival.


Temsirolimus, an intravenously administered mTOR inhibitor, was shown to result in prolonged OS compared with interferon-alpha in a phase III randomized controlled trial that enrolled intermediate- and poor-risk patients. The trial enrolled patients with a variety of subtypes of renal cell carcinoma and was not restricted to clear-cell kidney cancer. The HR for death was 0.73 (95% CI, 0.58–0.92, P = .008), making temsirolimus the only therapy for renal cell carcinoma to have clearly been shown to result in longer OS than interferon-alpha using conventional statistical analysis.[22]


Everolimus is an orally administered mTOR inhibitor that was evaluated in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled phase III trial. The trial enrolled patients with metastatic renal cell carcinoma with a clear-cell component that had progressed during or within 6 months of stopping treatment with sunitinib or sorafenib, or both drugs. Median progression-free survival (PFS) was 4.0 months with everolimus compared with 1.9 months with placebo.[23] No difference in OS was reported.


Based on research showing that most clear-cell renal cell carcinomas carried a mutation resulting in constitutive production of cytokines stimulating angiogenesis, several agents that targeted vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)-mediated pathways were developed. Several of these agents have been shown in randomized, controlled trials to significantly delay progression of clear-cell renal cell carcinoma, but none has resulted in a statistically significant increase in OS as conventionally assessed. Many of these trials allowed crossover upon progression and, in some instances, other agents with similar biological activity were available to patients after they withdrew from the clinical trial. These facts may have made it more difficult to detect an OS benefit. For the clinician, this makes it challenging to determine the real benefit of these drugs to the patient. The four FDA-approved anti-VEGF agents include three oral tyrosine kinase inhibitors: pazopanib, sorafenib, and sunitinib; and an anti-VEGF monoclonal antibody, bevacizumab. Axitinib is a newer, highly selective, and more potent inhibitor of VEGF receptors 1, 2, and 3 and has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of advanced renal cell carcinoma after the failure of one previously received systemic therapy.[24]


Sunitinib and the combination of bevacizumab plus interferon-alpha have each been associated with longer PFS than interferon-alpha alone in randomized, controlled trials. Sunitinib is an orally available multikinase inhibitor (VEGFR-1, VEGFR-2, PDGFR, c-Kit). In 750 previously untreated patients, all of whom had clear-cell kidney cancer, a phase III trial compared sunitinib with interferon-alpha.[25] Sunitinib as first-line systemic therapy was associated with a median PFS of 11 months compared with 5 months for interferon-alpha. The HR for progression was 0.42 (95% CI, 0.32–0.54; P < .001).[25][Level of evidence: 1iiDiii] However, the analysis for OS showed a strong but statistically nonsignificant trend to improved survival (26.4 months vs. 21.8 months, HR, 0.82; 95% CI, 0.669–1.001; P = .051).[26][Level of evidence: 1iiDiii] Bevacizumab, a monoclonal antibody that binds to and neutralizes circulating VEGF protein, delayed progression of clear-cell renal cell carcinoma when compared with placebo in patients with disease refractory to biological therapy.[27] Similarly, bevacizumab plus interferon-alpha as first-line therapy resulted in longer PFS but not OS compared with interferon alpha alone in two similarly designed, randomized, controlled trials.[28,29]


Axitinib was shown to prolong progression of disease when used as second-line systemic therapy. A randomized, controlled trial of 723 patients conducted at 175 sites in 22 countries evaluated axitinib versus sorafenib as treatment for renal cell carcinoma with a clear-cell component that had progressed during or after first-line treatment with sunitinib (54%), cytokines (35%), bevacizumab plus interferon (8%), or temsirolimus (3%).[24,30] The primary endpoint was PFS, and the data were analyzed when disease in 88% of the axitinib patients and 90% of the sorafenib patients had progressed, while 58% and 59%, respectively, had died.

Median PFS was 8.3 months for axitinib and 5.7 months for sorafenib (HR, 0.656; 95% CI, 0.552–0.779, P < .0001 for progression death using a one-sided log-rank test and a threshold of P < .025 for significance). Median OS was 20.1 months with axitinib compared with 19.2 months with sorafenib (HR, 0.969; 95% CI, 0.80–1.17, P = .374). However, the largest benefit was seen in patients who received cytokines as first-line therapy and whose median PFS was 12.2 months with axitinib compared with 8.2 months with sorafenib (P < .0001), while median OS was 29.4 months with axitinib compared with 27.8 months with sorafenib (HR, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.5501.19; P = .144). In contrast, in patients who had previously received sunitinib, axitinib was associated with a 2.1-month increase in PFS compared with sorafenib (6.5 months vs. 4.4 months, one-sided P = .002), but median OS was nearly identical: 15.2 months with axitinib compared with 16.5 months with sorafenib (HR, 1.0; 95% CI, 0.782–1.270; P = .49).[30]

Comparing the toxicity of the axitinib and sorafenib regimens is complicated because the axitinib arm included a dose-escalation component, and only those patients who tolerated the lower dose were subsequently given the higher doses. Hypertension, nausea, dysphonia, and hypothyroidism were more common with axitinib, whereas palmar-plantar erythrodysesthesia, alopecia, and rash were more common with sorafenib.[24,30]


Pazopanib is an orally available multikinase inhibitor (VEGFR-1, VEGFR-2, VEGFR-3, PDGFR, and c-KIT) and has also been approved for the treatment of patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma.[31]

Pazopanib was evaluated in a randomized, placebo-controlled, international trial (VEG015192 [NCT00334282]) that enrolled 435 patients with clear-cell or predominantly clear-cell renal cell carcinoma.[32] Nearly 50% of the patients had previously received cytokine therapy, although the remainder of them were treatment naïve. PFS was significantly prolonged in the pazopanib arm at 9.2 months compared with 4.2 months in the placebo arm. The HR for progression was 0.46 (95% CI, 0.34–0.62; P < .0001), and the median duration of response was longer than 1 year.

Pazopanib was also compared with sunitinib in a randomized, controlled trial (NCT00720941) that enrolled 1,110 patients who had metastatic renal cell carcinoma with a clear-cell component in a 1:1 ratio.[33] The primary endpoint was PFS. The study was powered to assess the noninferiority of pazopanib. Results were reported when there was disease progression in 336 of 557patients (60%) who received pazopanib and 323 of 553 patients (58%) who received sunitinib. The median PFS time was 8.4 months for those in the pazopanib arm and 9.5 months for those in the sunitinib arm (HR, 1.05; CI, .9–1.22). There was no difference in OS (HR, 0.91; 95% CI, .76–1.08). Although quality of life was compared in the study, differences in the scheduled administration of the medications made this comparison difficult to interpret.

A subsequent double-blind, randomized, controlled, cross-over trial compared sunitinib followed by pazopanib with pazopanib followed by sunitinib, and the primary endpoint was patient preference for one drug over the other.[34] Patients were treated for 10 weeks with either sunitinib or pazopanib, followed by a 2-week washout period, followed by 10 more weeks of treatment with the other drug. Preference was assessed at the end of the second 10-week–treatment period. This study design created possible bias in favor of pazopanib.

Although the typical regimen for administering sunitinib is a 6-week cycle of 4 weeks on the drug and 2 weeks off the drug, the Patient Preference Study of Pazopanib Versus Sunitinib in Advanced or Metastatic Kidney Cancer (PISCES [NCT01064310]) chose a treatment period of 10 weeks rather than 12 weeks. Because of this treatment-period change, the 10 weeks of sunitinib treatment included 4 weeks on the drug, followed by 2 weeks off the drug, followed by 4 more weeks on the drug. Patients assigned to pazopanib followed by sunitinib had their preference for treatment assessed at the end of the second 4-weeks-on-the-drug period during which the patients took sunitinib daily for 28 days. At that point, the sunitinib side effects became the most severe. The expected result from an assessment conducted at the end of a 6-week treatment cycle versus the 4-week treatment cycle would be greatly abated side effects.

In addition, the 2-week washout period that occurred between the two 10-week treatment periods was a true break from treatment for patients assigned to take pazopanib first; however, for the patients taking sunitinib, the 2-week washout period was actually just the completion of their second 6-week treatment cycle. In other words, patients assigned to pazopanib first had a true 2-week break from treatment, and their drug preference was assessed at the peak period of toxic effects from sunitinib; however, the patients assigned to sunitinib first had no true treatment break before starting pazopanib and may have had less opportunity to recover from the side effects of sunitinib.

Despite these limitations, 70% of the patients preferred pazopanib, and 22% of the patients preferred sunitinib (P < .001). More patients preferred pazopanib regardless of the treatment they received first; however, that difference was greater for the patients who received pazopanib first (80% vs. 11%) compared with the patients who received sunitinib first (62% vs. 32%). The main side effects cited by the patients that contributed to patient preference were diarrhea, health-related quality of life, fatigue, loss of appetite, taste changes, nausea and vomiting, hand and foot soreness, stomach pain, and mouth and throat soreness. The patients preferring pazopanib cited less fatigue and better overall quality of life as the most common reasons for their preference. The patients preferring sunitinib cited less diarrhea and better quality of life as the most common reasons for their preference. Physician preference was a secondary endpoint of the study, and 61% of physicians preferred to continue patient treatment with pazopanib, compared with 22% of physicians who preferred to continue patient treatment with sunitinib.


Sorafenib is an orally available multikinase inhibitor (cRAF, bRAF, KIT, FLT-3, VEGFR-2, VEGFR-3, and PDGFR-β) and has also been approved for the treatment of patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma.[31]

In an international, multicenter, randomized trial with the primary endpoints of PFS and OS, 769 patients were stratified by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center prognostic risk category and by country and were randomly assigned to receive either sorafenib (400 mg bid) or a placebo. Approximately 82% of the patients had received IL-2 previously and/or interferon-alpha in both arms of the study. The median PFS for patients randomly assigned to sorafenib was 167 days compared with 84 days for patients randomly assigned to placebo (P < .001). The estimated HR for the risk of progression with sorafenib compared with a placebo was 0.44 (95% CI, 0.35–0.55). There was no significant difference in OS.[31][Level of evidence: 1iDiii] A subsequent phase II study of 189 patients randomly assigned to either sorafenib or interferon-alpha reported no difference (5.7 months vs. 5.6 months) in PFS, but sorafenib was associated with better quality of life than interferon-alpha.[35]


Responses to cytotoxic chemotherapy generally have not exceeded 10% for any regimen that has been studied in adequate numbers of patients.

Treatment Options

Because of the lack of curative therapy for metastatic disease and the promise of targeted therapies, patients should be considered for the many ongoing clinical trials testing single or combination therapies, including the following:

  1. Radical nephrectomy (for T4, M0 lesions).
  2. Cytoreductive nephrectomy (for any T, M1 lesions).[2,3]
  3. Temsirolimus.[22]
  4. Sunitinib.[25,26]
  5. Pazopanib.[32]
  6. Bevacizumab with or without interferon-alpha.[27-29,36]
  7. Everolimus (for patients who have previously been treated with sunitinib and/or sorafenib).[23]
  8. Sorafenib.[35,37]
  9. Axitinib.[30]
  10. Interferon-alpha.[11,21,38,39]
  11. IL-2.[11,17,18]
  12. Palliative EBRT.

Current Clinical Trials

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IV renal cell cancer and recurrent renal cell cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.


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  • Updated: February 25, 2015