Immunotherapy for the Treatment of Urothelial Carcinoma

The Journal of Urology; January 2017; Volume 197, Issue 1, Pages 14–22

Donin NM1, Lenis AT1, Holden S1, Drakaki A1, Pantuck A1, Belldegrun A1, Chamie K2.

1 Department of Urology, Institute of Urologic Oncology, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, California;

2 Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology and Oncology (AD), David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, California; Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center (AD, AP, AB, KC), University of California, Los Angeles, California.



We review the biological mechanisms of action, clinical safety and efficacy of immunotherapies for urothelial carcinoma. We also describe current areas of research in immunotherapy, and highlight ongoing trials and promising and novel investigational agents.

Materials and Methods

Data were obtained by a search of PubMed®, and Cochrane databases for English language articles published through February 2016. Applicable abstracts from recent Society of Urologic Oncology, European Association of Urology, American Urological Association and ASCO® meetings were used.


Bacillus Calmette-Guérin is one of the most successful immunotherapies in cancer treatment and remains the gold standard of care for patients with high risk, nonmuscle invasive bladder cancer, with initial response rates of approximately 70%. However, with the exception of valrubicin and standard chemotherapeutics there is a paucity of available treatment options for patients with recurrence or progression to more advanced disease. Recently there has been significant interest in novel immunotherapeutic agents in the management of cases where bacillus Calmette-Guérin fails, as well as cases of more advanced cancer. These investigational therapies can generally be classified into several broad categories, including recombinant bacillus Calmette-Guérin and cell wall derived therapies, cytokines, gene therapy, cancer vaccines, immune checkpoint inhibitors, oncolytic viruses, adoptive immunotherapies and immune agonists, as well as several additional immunomodulatory agents. The majority of these agents are currently under investigation in phase I or II clinical trials. Recently investigators reported evidence that inhibition of the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway has clinical activity in patients with advanced bladder cancer. These findings, along with successful phase III trials and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approvals of other checkpoint inhibitors in melanoma, nonsmall cell lung cancer and renal cell carcinoma, ultimately led to Food and Drug Administration approval of atezolizumab for advanced disease, the first new treatment approved for advanced urothelial carcinoma in 20 years.


While bacillus Calmette-Guérin has demonstrated significant clinical efficacy in the treatment of patients with bladder cancer, additional therapies are needed for those in whom bacillus Calmette-Guérin fails, as well as for those with advanced disease. Immunotherapy for urothelial carcinoma remains a promising and active area of research, and numerous agents, particularly the monoclonal antibodies targeting checkpoint inhibition pathways, are showing encouraging signs of clinical activity.


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