Purpose: Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare, aggressive skin cancer commonly driven by the Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV). The programmed death-1 (PD-1)/programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) immunosuppressive pathway is often upregulated in MCC, and advanced metastatic MCC frequently responds to PD-1 blockade. We report what we believe to be the first trial of anti-PD-1 in the neoadjuvant setting for resectable MCC.
Methods: In the phase I/II CheckMate 358 study of virus-associated cancer types, patients with resectable MCC received nivolumab 240 mg intravenously on days 1 and 15. Surgery was planned on day 29. Tumor regression was assessed radiographically and microscopically. Tumor MCPyV status, PD-L1 expression, and tumor mutational burden (TMB) were assessed in pretreatment tumor biopsies.
Results: Thirty-nine patients with American Joint Committee on Cancer stage IIA-IV resectable MCC received ≥ 1 nivolumab dose. Three patients (7.7%) did not undergo surgery because of tumor progression (n = 1) or adverse events (n = 2). Any-grade treatment-related adverse events occurred in 18 patients (46.2%), and grade 3-4 events in 3 patients (7.7%), with no unexpected toxicities. Among 36 patients who underwent surgery, 17 (47.2%) achieved a pathologic complete response (pCR). Among 33 radiographically evaluable patients who underwent surgery, 18 (54.5%) had tumor reductions ≥ 30%. Responses were observed regardless of tumor MCPyV, PD-L1, or TMB status. At a median follow-up of 20.3 months, median recurrence-free survival (RFS) and overall survival were not reached. RFS significantly correlated with pCR and radiographic response at the time of surgery. No patient with a pCR had tumor relapse during observation.
Conclusion: Nivolumab administered approximately 4 weeks before surgery in MCC was generally tolerable and induced pCRs and radiographic tumor regressions in approximately one half of treated patients. These early markers of response significantly predicted improved RFS. Additional investigation of these promising findings is warranted.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT02488759.