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