Skin Cancer

Skin cancer occurs when skin cells overgrow and form tumors. Basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma make up most skin cancer cases. The biggest known risk factor for skin cancer is UV exposure. But the Merkel cell polyomavirus causes most cases of Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare but aggressive variety of skin cancer. Certain other types of cancer, including cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, can manifest in the skin, but they do not arise from skin cells.

Fred Hutch research includes fundamental studies of the mutations that drive development of skin cancer and clinical trials that test new ways to deploy the immune system against the disease.

A skin cancer tissue scan.
A skin cancer tissue scan. Fred Hutch

Skin Cancer Research

Our research focuses on understanding what drives skin cancer and developing more targeted treatments. 

Squamous Cell Carcinoma


A deeper understanding of the important genetic alterations found in skin cancer, and how they contribute to disease, may help point the way to future drug targets. Our scientists work toward this goal by discovering the key mutations in squamous cell carcinoma and outlining how they drive development and progression of skin cancer. They also seek to reveal new ways that our bodies stave off cancer. These insights can lead to new treatments for skin cancer and other tumors.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma


With collaborators in the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium, our scientists developed a blood-based screening test to detect MCC recurrence. This test can spare patients from more invasive screening. Our researchers also led pivotal studies showing that checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy, can effectively halt or reverse disease in many patients with MCC. These findings transformed treatment standards for MCC.

We continue to explore the use of immunotherapy to improve treatment for people with MCC. This includes studies of checkpoint inhibitors and the use of a patient’s own immune cells engineered to recognize the tumors. We also study the immune system’s response to the Merkel cell polyomavirus. Our researchers hope that insights from these studies may inform the use of immunotherapy in other tumor types. 



Our work on melanoma focuses on harnessing the immune system to combat the disease. We are experimenting with empowering a patient’s own melanoma-attacking immune cells, called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes or TILs, to better target their tumor. Other clinical trials include studies of checkpoint inhibitors and experimental immune-stimulating therapies for people with melanoma.

Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center (IIRC)

Fred Hutch created the IIRC to advance our immunotherapy research and increase collaboration across scientific disciplines. Our scientists are working to extend immunotherapy’s successes to more solid tumors, including melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma. 

Selected Skin Cancer Clinical Trials

Clinical research is an essential part of the scientific process that leads to new treatments and better care. Clinical trials can also be a way for patients to get early access to new cutting-edge new therapies. Our clinical research teams are running clinical studies on various kinds of skin cancer.

See All Skin Cancer Clinical Trials

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center campus.

Our Skin Cancer Researchers

Our interdisciplinary scientists and clinicians work together to prevent, diagnose and treat skin cancer as well as other cancers and diseases.

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance building.

Patient Treatment & Care

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, our clinical care partner, gives patients access to the comprehensive, world-class treatments developed at Fred Hutch.


A Patient’s Story

Rose Wittman
Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Rose Wittman

Rose Wittman was surprised to be diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare and aggressive skin cancer. When radiation therapy didn’t work, a Seattle trial of an experimental immunotherapy combination reversed her disease. 

Latest Skin Cancer News

Dr. Martin 'Mac' Cheever, cancer immunotherapy expert, receives distinguished service award Honor recognizes his work establishing Cancer Immunotherapy Trials Network November 15, 2019
Public health throws shade on tanning, and it works New study shows sharp drop in melanoma rates in people under 30, but skin cancer rates still going up in those over 40 November 13, 2019
Nanotech turns pro-tumor immune cells into cancer-killing triple agents Strategy doubles survival in mice with cancer September 5, 2019