When researching and actively working towards the treatment of an emerging condition, it is important to pay close attention to the history of the disease and how it might help move forward the field of study and public awareness. Being a lesser-known form of cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) has not been paid as close attention as its mortality rate should merit. At OncoSec, we believe that it is of high importance to advance the field of study surrounding MCC and to create a more effective treatment regimen.
Fifty years ago, melanoma – another deadly cutaneous malignancy – was difficult to diagnose and even more challenging to catch in its early stages. Beginning with the creation of measurements for the size and depth of tumors, medical professionals created a better understanding of the cancer and began utilizing specialized biopsies (such as sentinel lymph node biopsies), in order to better treat the condition, while also allowing for early detection (Sondak, Zager and Messina 2012). While it was not until the 1970s that this procedure was actively used in cases of skin cancer, it has become a useful tool for detecting and fighting other forms of cancer.
Merkel cell carcinoma was a relatively unheard of condition, until quite recently. Historically, similar to melanoma, prognosis factors were not paid close enough attention, due to the rarity of this type of cancer. However, MCC has three-times the mortality rate of malignant melanoma – 46%, when compared to 15% – with reported incidences tripling over the past 20 years (Bhatia, Afanasiev and Nghiem 2011). Recently, researchers have discovered the link between MCC and the Merkel cell polyomavirus: a realization that has helped researchers understand that the immune system plays a pivotal role in the prevention and fighting of MCC.
We now know that dysfunctions in the immune system can increase the risk of MCC by 5 to 50 times, compared to those with healthy immune systems (Bhatia et al 2011). Because of this, we are able to start working towards earlier detection and more effective treatment, while also increasing awareness around the large growth in diagnosis. The future can potentially lie with immunotherapy treatments that use the body and the immune system to fight off cancer cells, without the harm caused by radiation and chemotherapy techniques. Through immunotherapy, we hope to see a reduction in mortality rate, as well as using immune surveillance and prevention to decrease the number of cases and increase early diagnosis.
Our Phase II trial study on Merkel cell carcinoma patients is currently enrolling patients. As stated, this approach signals the immune response of the body and uses the host’s cells against those of the cancer. If you or your loved one has been diagnosed with MCC, please see our clinical trial review for more information.