Our team based in Seattle conducted a comprehensive review including evolving trends in the management of Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC). This summary covers key decision points, including recommended work-up during initial diagnosis, treatment options for MCC when it’s in one place or has spread, management of recurrent MCC, and new treatments that are showing promise with fewer side effects and good results. This review gives valuable information on how to handle MCC overall and emphasizes new methods that are effective and less toxic on patients.
Understanding and augmenting cancer-specific immunity is impeded by the fact that most tumors are driven by patient-specific mutations that encode unique antigenic epitopes. The shared antigens in virus-driven tumors can help overcome this limitation. Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a particularly interesting tumor immunity model because (1) 80% of cases are driven by Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) oncoproteins that must be continually expressed for tumor survival; (2) MCPyV oncoproteins are only ~400 amino acids in length and are essentially invariant between tumors; (3) MCPyV-specific T cell responses are robust and strongly linked to patient outcomes; (4) anti-MCPyV antibodies reliably increase with MCC recurrence, forming the basis of a standard clinical surveillance test; and (5) MCC has one of the highest response rates to PD-1 pathway blockade among all solid cancers. Leveraging these well-defined viral oncoproteins, a set of tools that includes over 20 peptide-MHC class I tetramers has been developed to facilitate the study of anti-tumor immunity across MCC patients. Additionally, the highly immunogenic nature of MCPyV oncoproteins forces MCC tumors to develop robust immune evasion mechanisms to survive. Indeed, several immune evasion mechanisms are active in MCC, including transcriptional downregulation of MHC expression by tumor cells and upregulation of inhibitory molecules including PD-L1 and immunosuppressive cytokines. About half of patients with advanced MCC do not persistently benefit from PD-1 pathway blockade. Herein, we (1) summarize the lessons learned from studying the anti-tumor T cell response to virus-positive MCC; (2) review immune evasion mechanisms in MCC; (3) review mechanisms of resistance to immune-based therapies in MCC and other cancers; and (4) discuss how recently developed tools can be used to address open questions in cancer immunotherapy. We believe detailed investigation of this model cancer will provide insight into tumor immunity that will likely also be applicable to more common cancers without shared tumor antigens.