Researchers Unlock Possible Treatment for Rare Skin Cancer


Researchers may have found a treatment for an untreatable cancer. A new study in Cancer Immunology Research sought to find improved immune therapy techniques for certain cancers, including Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC)—an aggressive skin cancer about three times more deadly than melanoma with no therapies approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Scientists at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch) and the University of Washington (UW) focused on how “killer” CD8 T cells respond to the “KLL” part of the Merkel cell polyomaviris, present in about 80% of the 2,000 new MCC cases diagnosed in the U.S. every year. Scientists found that most patients, around 80%, did not make T cells to specifically target the KLL region.

Twelve patients with KLL-recognizing T cells were further analyzed by Natalie Miller, first author and M.D./Ph.D. student. She found 397 unique ways—with only one repeat—in which T cells recognized the portion of the virus. In addition, KLL-specific T cells were observed to correlate with improved patient survival, with cells from patients with more positive outcomes sticking more tightly to the viral target.

Moving Forward

The researchers hope use their findings to propose a clinical trial to transfer specifically-engineered T cells to patients whose immune response is ineffective on their own.

“Like Merkel cell carcinoma, cancers that have a viral component provide a variety of potential targets for immunotherapy. We’re eager to find out if transgenic T cell therapy can ‘reprogram’ lymphocytes to eliminate tumors in combination with checkpoint inhibition,” said Paul Nghiem, MD, affiliate investigator of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutch and professor at the UW School of Medicine.


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