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.
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.
Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells. Most often it develops on skin exposed to the sun, but this common form of cancer can also occur on areas of your skin not ordinarily exposed to sunlight. There are three major types of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer that begins in cells known as melanocytes. While it is less common than basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), melanoma is more dangerous because of its ability to spread to other organs more rapidly if it is not treated at an early stage.
Merkel cell carcinoma is a very rare disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the skin. It is the second most common cause of skin cancer death after melanoma. Merkel cell carcinoma tends to grow quickly and to metastasize (spread) at an early stage. It usually spreads first to nearby lymph nodes and then may spread to lymph nodes or skin in distant parts of the body, lungs, brain, bones, or other organs.
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.
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.
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.