The Evolving Treatment Landscape of Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Curr Treat Options Oncol. 2023 Sep;24(9):1231-1258. doi: 10.1007/s11864-023-01118-8. Epub 2023 Jul 5.


Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) has a high risk of recurrence and requires unique treatment relative to other skin cancers. The patient population is generally older, with comorbidities. Multidisciplinary and personalized care is therefore paramount, based on patient preferences regarding risks and benefits. Positron emission tomography and computed tomography (PET-CT) is the most sensitive staging modality and reveals clinically occult disease in ~ 16% of patients. Discovery of occult disease spread markedly alters management. Newly diagnosed, localized disease is often managed with sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB), local excision, primary wound closure, and post-operative radiation therapy (PORT). In contrast, metastatic disease is usually treated systemically with an immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI). However, one or more of these approaches may not be indicated. Criteria for such exceptions and alternative approaches will be discussed. Because MCC recurs in 40% of patients and early detection/treatment of advanced disease is advantageous, close surveillance is recommended. Given that over 90% of initial recurrences arise within 3 years, surveillance frequency can be rapidly decreased after this high-risk period. Patient-specific assessment of risk is important because recurrence risk varies widely (15 to > 80%: depending on baseline patient characteristics and time since treatment. Blood-based surveillance tests are now available (Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) antibodies and circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA)) with excellent sensitivity that can spare patients from contrast dye, radioactivity, and travel to a cancer imaging facility. If recurrent disease is locoregional, management with surgery and/or RT is typically indicated. ICIs are now the first line for systemic/advanced MCC, with objective response rates (ORRs) exceeding 50%. Cytotoxic chemotherapy is sometimes used for debulking disease or in patients who cannot tolerate ICI. ICI-refractory disease is the major problem faced by this field. Fortunately, numerous promising therapies are on the horizon to address this clinical need.

Keywords: Cutaneous neuroendocrine carcinoma; Immunotherapy; Merkel cell carcinoma; Merkel cell polyomavirus; Multidisciplinary care.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell* / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell* / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell* / therapy
  • Diagnostic Imaging / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Positron Emission Tomography Computed Tomography / adverse effects
  • Positron Emission Tomography Computed Tomography / methods
  • Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy / adverse effects
  • Skin Neoplasms* / complications
  • Skin Neoplasms* / diagnosis
  • Skin Neoplasms* / therapy