Diseases / Research

Skin Cancer

Merkel cell

Merkel cell CD8 – CLA: An improved outcome can be seen when the immune cells, marked red and green, are seen inside of Merkel Cell Carcinoma. The nuclei of the all of the cells, including the tumor are labeled with blue dye.

Photo by Paul Nghiem Lab and Fred Hutch Experimental Histopathology

Fred Hutch researchers are harnessing the immune system's power to destroy cancer cells. This technique, called immunotherapy, is a promising melanoma treatment. In a groundbreaking study, our researchers showed that one form of immunotherapy can eradicate melanoma from certain patients.

Fast Facts

  • Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer.  There are several types of cancer including basal and squamous cell, melanoma and merkel cell.
  • Basal and Squamous cell cancers are very common and very treatable. They are most often found in areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck and arms. 
  • Melanoma starts in melanocytes, the cells that give skin its color. Malignant melanoma usually begins with an abnormal mole but can also start in other pigmented tissues, such as the eyes or intestines. It is less common than basal and squamous cell skin cancer, but can spread to other parts of the body if not caught early. Men are at a higher risk for melanoma than women.
  • Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare type of skin cancer, also known as neuroendocrine carcinoma of the skin.  It is much less common than other skin cancers, but is aggressive and at high-risk for reoccurring and metastasizing. It typically appears as flesh-colored or bluish-red nodules on the face, head or neck.
Dr. Paul Nghiem explains how his team uses immunotherapy to combat a rare, often misdiagnosed form of skin cancer. Nghiem is affiliate investigator in Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division, head of dermatology at the University of Washington and director of the Skin Oncology Clinical Program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

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Detection & Diagnosis

Detecting a cause of Merkel cell carcinoma  Drs. Denise Galloway and Paul Nghiem developed a blood test to detect the presence of the Merkel cell polyomavirus, the virus that can cause an aggressive form of skin cancer known as Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC). Galloway and Nghiem determined the virus is extremely common in the general population, but only becomes MCC in a minority of people. Subsequent research identified polyomavirus protein fragments that can be recognized by the body’s own disease-fighting T cells and that those T cells can be used to kills MCC cells containing the same protein fragment.  Learn more >

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Treatment & Prognosis

Eradicating melanoma – A team led of Fred Hutch researchers reported that a patients' own tumor-fighting cells wiped out out his melanoma without chemotherapy or radiation treatment. If the technique—known as adoptive T-cell therapy—shows promise in a larger set of patients, this therapy could be used for 25 percent of all late-stage melanoma patients. Learn more >

Halting or reducing melanoma tumors – Fred Hutch researchers reported a halt or reduction in growth of melanoma tumors after injecting patients with laboratory-grown copies of different type of T-cell, called CD8+, and a chemical called IL-2 that causes T-cells to replicate. Learn more >

Attacking cancer cells – A team of researchers has opened the door to new treatment possibilities for melanoma, along with other diseases, such as breast and ovarian cancers. In the laboratory, they have discovered a method for coaxing an important component of the body's immune system to attack cancer cells. Learn more >

Novel immunotherapy for Merkel cell carcinoma Using research from Hutch colleagues, our immunotherapy experts initiated the world’s first T-cell therapy designed to target a portion of the Merkel cell polyomavirus responsible for the development of Merkel cell carcinoma. Using an advanced cell sorter provided by private support, researchers isolated T-cells that recognized the target oncogenic protein fragment and grew large numbers of them in a lab. Those MCC fighting T cells were infused in a patient in October of 2011 with encouraging results and  a clinical trial to treat more patients is now underway. Learn more >

Activating T-cells – To improve the effectiveness of T-cell immunotherapy, researchers are attempting to lower the threshold of activation of T-cells to enhance their ability to seek out, recognize and kill cancer cells. Dr. Phillip Greenberg and colleagues are addressing this by partnering T-cells with therapeutic antibodies in an active clinical trial enrolling participants with advanced melanoma. Results to date are promising with stabilization/regression of bulky disease.

New research finding could lead to clinical trial - Immune responses against virus-related cancer may provide clues to improved immunotherapy.  Researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington say a new study suggests ways to improve immune therapy for certain cancers, including a virus-associated form of Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare, aggressive skin cancer. Learn more

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