Current pivotal phase 3 studies have permanently changed the first-line treatment landscape in metastatic renal cell carcinoma. These studies showed that immune checkpoint combinations were more efficacious than sunitinib, a previous standard of care. Nivolumab plus ipilimumab is characterized by a survival advantage, a high rate of complete response and durable remission in patients with intermediate and unfavorable prognosis. Despite frequent immune-mediated side effects, fewer symptoms and a better quality of life were observed compared to sunitinib. Pembrolizumab or avelumab plus axitinib were characterized by an improved PFS and a high response rate with a low rate of intrinsic resistance. In addition, a significant survival benefit was achieved with pembrolizumab plus axitinib. The side effect profile is driven by the “chronic” toxicity of axitinib, but there is additional risk of immune-mediated side effects of the PD-1/PD-L1 immune checkpoint inhibitors. The quality-of-life data published so far do not suggest any improvement compared to the previous standard sunitinib. The PD-1/PD-L1 immune-check-point inhibitors thus form the “backbone” of the first-line therapy of metastatic renal cell carcinoma. Monotherapy with VEGFR-TKI remains an option in cases with contraindications and possibly for subgroups with favorable prognosis.
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