Merkel cell carcinoma

Author: Mathew Ludgate MBChB, Dept of Dermatology Greenlane Hospital Auckland, New Zealand, 2005. Updated by A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Hamilton, New Zealand. September 2014.

What is Merkel cell carcinoma of the skin?

Merkel cell carcinoma of the skin is a rare form of skin cancer. It may be very aggressive, and often metastasises (spreads) to other parts of the body.

Who gets Merkel cell carcinoma?

Merkel cell carcinoma has an estimated incidence of 0.23 per 100,000 people in Caucasian populations, which is much less common than melanoma.

What are the clinical features of Merkel cell carcinoma?

Merkel cell carcinoma usually presents as a rapidly enlarging, solitary, irregular red nodule. It is often similar in appearance to other more common skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, but grows much more quickly.

Merkel cell cancers spread through the lymphatic system and multiple metastases can develop around the main tumour (local recurrence). Merkel cell carcinoma may also spread to lymph nodes in the neck, axillae and groin. This is more likely in thicker tumours.

What causes Merkel cell carcinoma?

Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) has been detected in about 80% Merkel cell carcinomas tested. It is thought that the virus causes gene mutations leading to Merkel cell carcinoma when immune function is defective.

Ultraviolet radiation has been implicated as a factor in developing Merkel cell carcinoma, due to the occurrence of the tumour on sun exposed skin.

Immunosuppression is an important factor for the development of Merkel cell carcinomas.

Merkel cell carcinoma was previously believed to arise from Merkel cells, which are pressure receptors in the skin. Recent investigation is pointing to their origin being early B-cells (lymphocytes) based on cellular morphology, the expression of early B-cell markers and clonal immunoglobulin chain rearrangement.  

How is Merkel cell carcinoma diagnosed?

Merkel cell carcinoma should be considered in any tumour with "AEIOU" clinical features, which are present in about 90% of patients with the disease.

The main test is biopsy of the tumour. This shows characteristic Merkel cell carcinoma pathology. After general examination, including evaluation of local lymph nodes, staging imaging investigations may be arranged to determine whether the tumour has spread ot other sites.

Some patients may have further investigations to see if the Merkel cell carcinoma has spread beyond its original site in the skin. This may include:

A specific Merkel cell carcinoma staging system is published by the American Joint Committee on Cancer.

Longterm survival is likely if the lymph nodes do not contain tumour cells.

What is the treatment of Merkel cell carcinoma?

Once Merkel cell carcinoma is diagnosed, multidisciplinary consultation is usual. As 5-year survival rates for MCC are only around 50%, early aggressive treatment is required, most often with a combination of surgery and radiation therapy. 

Localised disease

Surgical excision is the main treatment of primary Merkel cell carcinoma. A wide area surrounding the cancer may also be removed; this may not be necessary if radiotherapy is added.

The primary site may be treated with radiotherapy post-operatively, especially for large lesions (> 2 cm), . Radiation treatment leads to increased local and regional disease control and higher long-term survival rates.

The relevant lymph nodes may also be surgically removed or irradiated as a prophylactic measure.

Disease involving regional lymph nodes

If the cancer has spread to involve the lymph nodes, these may be surgically removed and/or treated with radiotherapy. In some cases, systemic chemotherapy may also be administered.

Distant metastatic disease

Distant disease is very serious and has a very poor prognosis. Treatment of metastatic disease is aimed at improving quality of life. In some cases radiotherapy and/or systemic chemotherapy may be administered for treatment. Positive response to PD-1 blockade has been reported using pembrolizumab for advanced merkel cell carcinoma.

In March 2017, US the Food and Drug Administration granted accelerated approval to another PD-1/PD-L1 agent, avelumab (Bavencio®) to treat metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma. Approval was based on a trial of avelumab that showed response in one third of patients.

Consensus treatment guidelines are published by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.



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