Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare (∼2,000 U.S. cases/year) but aggressive neuroendocrine tumor of the skin. For advanced MCC, cytotoxic chemotherapy only infrequently (<10% of cases) offers durable clinical responses (>1 year), suggesting a great need for improved therapeutic options. In 2008, the Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) was discovered and is clonally integrated in approximately 80% of MCC tumors. The remaining 20% of MCC tumors have large numbers of UV-associated mutations. Importantly, both the UV-induced neoantigens in virus-negative tumors and the MCPyV T antigen oncogenes that are required for virus-positive tumor growth are immunogenic. Indeed, antigen-specific T cells detected in patients are frequently dysfunctional/”exhausted,” and the inhibitory ligand, PD-L1, is often present in MCC tumors. These findings led to recent clinical trials involving PD-1 pathway blockade in advanced MCC. The combined data from these trials involving three PD-1 pathway blocking agents-avelumab, pembrolizumab, and nivolumab-indicated a high frequency of durable responses in treated patients. Of note, prior treatment with chemotherapy was associated with decreased response rates to PD-1 checkpoint blockade. Over the past year, these striking data led to major changes in advanced MCC therapy, including the first-ever FDA drug approval for this disease. Despite these successes, approximately 50% of patients with MCC do not persistently benefit from PD-1 pathway blockade, underscoring the need for novel strategies to broaden antitumor immune responses in these patients. Here, we highlight recent progress in MCC including the underlying mechanisms of immune evasion and emerging approaches to augment the efficacy of PD-1 pathway blockade. Clin Cancer Res; 24(9); 2035-43. ©2017 AACR.
Merkel cell carcinoma can be indolent: A case with 7 locoregional recurrences over 15 years highlights the importance of patient-tailored management
Patients who experience a recurrence of their Merkel cell carcinoma are often treated aggressively. We report a case of a man with an unusually long course of MCC over 15 years who had his MCC recur around his face or neck 7 times before eventually developing distant spread. Because he had 4 major medical problems at the time his MCC initially appeared, less aggressive therapies were chosen for his recurrences, and there was no evidence of disease for the vast majority of his 15-year course, during which he enjoyed excellent quality of life. This case emphasizes the importance of customizing care in MCC to give patients the best quality and quantity of life possible in their particular situation.