Purpose: Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is an aggressive cutaneous neuroendocrine tumor, often metastatic at presentation, for which current chemotherapeutic regimens are largely ineffective. As its pathogenesis is still unknown, we hypothesized that deregulation of signaling pathways commonly activated in cancer may contribute to MCC tumorigenesis and may provide insights into targeted therapy approaches for this malignancy.
Experimental design: We retrospectively profiled 60 primary MCC samples using a SNaPshot-based tumor genotyping assay to screen for common mutations in 13 cancer genes.
Results: We identified mutations in 9 (15%) MCC primary tumors, including mutations in TP53 (3 of 60) and activating mutations in the PIK3CA gene (6 of 60). Sanger sequencing of the primary MCC tumors detected one additional PIK3CA mutation (R19K) that had not been previously described in cancer. Merkel cell polyoma virus (MCPyV) was detected in 38 (66%) MCC cases and patients with MCPyV-positive cancers showed a trend toward better survival. With one exception, the presence of MCPyV and activating mutations in PIK3CA appeared mutually exclusive. We observed that signaling through the PI3K/pAKT pathway was active in one MCPyV-positive and in all MCPyV-negative MCC cell lines, as evidenced by AKT phosphorylation. Importantly, the presence of a PIK3CA-activating mutation was associated with sensitivity to treatment with ZST474, a specific phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K) inhibitor, and to NVP-BEZ235, a dual PI3K/mTOR inhibitor, targeted agents under active clinical development.
Conclusions: PI3K pathway activation may drive tumorigenesis in a subset of MCC and screening these tumors for PIK3CA mutations could help identify patients who may respond to treatment with PI3K pathway inhibitors.