Preliminary evidence that Merkel cells exert chemosensory functions in human epidermis

Exp Dermatol. 2023 Aug 16. doi: 10.1111/exd.14907. Online ahead of print.


The mechanotransduction of light-touch sensory stimuli is considered to be the main physiological function of epidermal Merkel cells (MCs). Recently, however, MCs have been demonstrated to be also thermo-sensitive, suggesting that their role in skin physiologically extends well beyond mechanosensation. Here, we demonstrate that in healthy human skin epidermal MCs express functional olfactory receptors, namely OR2AT4, just like neighbouring keratinocytes. Selective stimulation of OR2AT4 by topical application of the synthetic odorant, Sandalore®, significantly increased Piccolo protein expression in MCs, as assessed by quantitative immunohistomorphometry, indicating increased vesicle trafficking and recycling, and significantly reduced nerve growth factor (NGF) immunoreactivity within MCs, possibly indicating increased neurotrophin release upon OR2AT4 activation. Live-cell imaging showed that Sandalore® rapidly induces a loss of FFN206-dependent fluorescence in MCs, suggesting OR2AT4-dependent MC depolarization and subsequent vesicle secretion. Yet, in contrast to keratinocytes, OR2AT4 stimulation by Sandalore® altered neither the number nor the proliferation status of MCs. These preliminary ex vivo findings demonstrate that epidermal MCs also exert OR-dependent chemosensory functions in human skin, and invite one to explore whether these newly identified properties are dysregulated in selected skin disorders, for example, in pruritic dermatoses, and if these novel MC functions can be therapeutically targeted to maintain/promote skin health.

Keywords: Merkel cell; chemosensation; olfactory receptor; vesicle release.