New Biomarkers Could Inform Care for Merkel Cell Carcinoma – Innovita Research

New Biomarkers Could Inform Care for Merkel Cell Carcinoma

New work from two teams of scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and the University of Washington School of Medicine reveals a biomarker that predicts which patients with the aggressive skin cancer Merkel cell carcinoma will respond to a type of cancer immunotherapy. 

A microscopic image of Merkel cell carcinoma tumor cells (magenta) and T cells (blue). Image credit: Assay by Kristin Robinson and photo by Kimberly Smythe/Fred Hutch Cancer Center

In papers (onetwo) published in Cell Reports Medicine, the researchers showed that it’s the frequency of anti-tumor immune cells in a Merkel cell cancer patient’s blood, not the tumor, that predicts whether their tumor will respond to immune checkpoint inhibitors. The findings are a step toward developing a clinical test that could someday guide treatment of the disease. 

“These data have implications for how we manage patients, both in making early treatment decisions, and how we overcome nonresponse,” said Fred Hutch and UW Medicine dermatologist Dr. Paul Nghiem, who treats patients with Merkel cell cancer and works to develop better therapies. He and Fred Hutch immunologist Evan Newell, led the teams that independently uncovered the biomarker. 

The researchers said because these cells are also the cells that immune checkpoint inhibitors help fight cancer, the results also suggest strategies scientists could use to improve patients’ chances of responding to these drugs. One potential treatment, in which patients receive immune cells called T cells that have been genetically engineered to help attack their tumor, are already being tested in clinical trials. 

Known as adoptive cell therapies, these engineered immune cells “could increase the number of anti-tumor T cells in the blood,” said graduate student Saumya Jani, who helped spearhead the Nghiem Lab project during the PhD portion of her medical scientist training program. “This would allow the immune checkpoint inhibitors to do their job: keep these cells in healthy, fighting shape and lead to disease regression.” 

Source: University of Washington