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.
The persistent expression of Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) oncoproteins in Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) provides a unique opportunity to characterize immune evasion mechanisms in human cancer. We isolated MCPyV-specific T cells and determined their frequency and functional status.
Multiparameter flow cytometry panels and HLA/peptide tetramers were used to identify and characterize T cells from tumors (n = 7) and blood (n = 18) of patients with MCC and control subjects (n = 10). PD-1 ligand (PD-L1) and CD8 expression within tumors were determined using mRNA profiling (n = 35) and immunohistochemistry (n = 13).
MCPyV-specific CD8 T cells were detected directly ex vivo from the blood samples of 7 out of 11 (64%) patients with MCPyV-positive tumors. In contrast, 0 of 10 control subjects had detectable levels of these cells in their blood (P < 0.01). MCPyV-specific T cells in serial blood specimens increased with MCC disease progression and decreased with effective therapy. MCPyV-specific CD8 T cells and MCC-infiltrating lymphocytes expressed higher levels of therapeutically targetable PD-1 and Tim-3 inhibitory receptors compared with T cells specific to other human viruses (P < 0.01). PD-L1 was present in 9 of 13 (69%) MCCs and its expression was correlated with CD8-lymphocyte infiltration.
MCC-targeting T cells expand with tumor burden and express high levels of immune checkpoint receptors PD-1 and Tim-3. Reversal of these inhibitory pathways is therefore a promising therapeutic approach for this virus-driven cancer.