Merkel cell carcinoma: An updated review of pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment options

Dermatol Ther. 2022 Mar;35(3):e15292. doi: 10.1111/dth.15292. Epub 2022 Jan 5.


Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare neuroendocrine carcinoma that typically appears in sun-exposed areas of the elderly. It has a poor prognosis and with its incidence projected to increase, it is vital for dermatologists to remain up to date with recent updates in this malignancy's pathogenesis and treatment. In the past few decades Merkel cell carcinoma's pathogenesis, more specifically its relation to the Merkel cell polyomavirus, has sparked further interest in the study of this carcinoma. Most cases are attributed to malignant transformation secondary to the Merkel cell polyomavirus, with a minority derived from DNA damage resulting from ultraviolet radiation. Investigators have also determined that there are immunologic influences in the development and prognosis of Merkel cell carcinoma, as individuals with HIV, solid organ transplants, and lymphoproliferative malignancies are at a greater risk of developing this carcinoma. In addition, this immunologic link carries treatment value, as immunologic therapies are currently being investigated. This article provides a comprehensive review of the epidemiology and pathogenesis of Merkel cell carcinoma as well as the current treatments available and clinical trials underway. We also touch upon the updated National Comprehensive Cancer Network Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology in respect to its diagnosis and recommended treatment modalities.

Keywords: Merkel cell; checkpoint inhibitors; immunotherapy; notch pathway; polyomavirus.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell* / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell* / etiology
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell* / therapy
  • Humans
  • Merkel cell polyomavirus* / genetics
  • Prognosis
  • Skin Neoplasms* / diagnosis
  • Skin Neoplasms* / etiology
  • Skin Neoplasms* / therapy
  • Ultraviolet Rays