Dr. Paul Nghiem originally had no interest in specializing in an extremely rare cancer.
In 2000, when Nghiem was a newly-minted dermatology resident working in Boston, he had seen exactly one patient with the skin cancer, known as Merkel cell carcinoma. But the disease was (and is) so uncommon — afflicting only 1,500 people per year in the U.S. — that Nghiem’s senior professor talked him into writing a textbook chapter on the cancer based on that sole patient encounter.
A resident who’d seen one patient “was somebody who knew a lot about it, compared to most [doctors],” said Nghiem. “I’m obviously making a joke, because I knew virtually nothing.”
In the 15 years since, Nghiem has thrown himself into everything Merkel cell, developing a career as a skin cancer researcher at the University of Washington (where he recently became head of the dermatology department) and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, as well as seeing patients with skin cancers at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Now, his clinical and research team’s efforts are starting to pay off.
At the European Cancer Congress held in late September in Vienna, Nghiem presented promising, early results from a clinical trial he leads based at seven sites around the U.S. testing an immunotherapy drug known as pembrolizumab (brand-name Keytruda) for patients with advanced Merkel cell carcinoma.