MCC 2021 Holiday Letter

Dear friends of Merkel cell carcinoma research,


Greetings! I hope that you are having a wonderful start to the holiday season. Your partnership is vital to accelerating discoveries that will continue to unlock better outcomes for patients and their families, today and for years to come. I am proud to share notable highlights from the past year:


Expansion of Online Care

Patients from all over the country fly to Seattle to receive Merkel cell carcinoma Merkel cell carcinoma A skin cancer composed of cells that look microscopically similar to normal Merkel cells present in the skin. MCC was first described in 1972 and only in the 1990s was the CK20 antibody developed to make it easily identifiable by pathologists. Many doctors and patients are not aware of this cancer because of its recent description and relative rarity (~2,000 cases/year in the US--roughly 30 times less common than melanoma). About 40% of patients treated for MCC will experience a recurrence, making it far more aggressive than most other types of skin cancer, including melanoma. (MCC) care. During the pandemic, we’ve successfully transitioned patient care to online platforms. This not only makes it more convenient for our patients, but it gives our care team a unique opportunity to know our patients more deeply and form closer relationships. Now we are being invited into patients’ homes where we have the opportunity to meet pets, talk about the art on the walls, and greet new family members whom we may not have had the chance to meet in ordinary times. Amazingly, we have cared for patients from 29 states via telehealth during the pandemic.


A New Blood Test to Detect MCC Tumor Cells

Our lab developed the “AMERK” antibody antibody A highly specific protein made by our bodies that can recognize and bind to an agent such as a bacteria or virus. test over a decade ago to test for MCC recurrence. We are excited that a new test will soon be available, which can detect DNA released by MCC tumor cells into the blood. This blood test works for both virus-positive and virus-negative patients to monitor their response to treatment or to detect early recurrence. We are currently performing a study to assess how well this test performs for MCC patients, across six centers around the U.S., but preliminary data indicates it will likely be a game-changer for many patients.


DNA Damage Response Inhibitor

New drugs that prevent cancer cancer A term used to describe diseases in which abnormal cells continually divide without normal regulation. Cancerous cells may invade surrounding tissues and may spread to other regions of the body via blood and the lymphatic system. cells from responding normally to DNA damage may also stimulate an anti-tumor immune response. One such drug, an ATR inhibitor, is entering clinical trials, and we hope MCC patients may receive it in the upcoming year. We are working with multiple partners to develop a subsequent Phase II trial to test this ATR inhibitor as a treatment for patients with MCC that does not respond to immunotherapy immunotherapy A therapy that improves the function of the cells that recognize and destroy foreign objects in your body, such as a virus, bacteria or cancer. .


A “Therapeutic Vaccine” to Prevent MCC Recurrence

After initial surgery and/or radiation removes all evident cancer, we currently have no treatments to lower the chance of MCC recurrence, even though we know the risk of recurrence is more than 20% in virtually all patients. We have developed a “therapeutic vaccine” that we hope will help the immune system recognize and destroy remaining cancer cells in the body. As we learned through the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, it is advantageous to have several options to compare, so we are actively exploring three different types of vaccines. We are on target to open a clinical trial for the first vaccine candidate in 2022.


Recurrence Risk Calculators

In an effort to help MCC physicians and patients make informed decisions about treatment and surveillance, our group saw the need to develop a recurrence risk calculator. Our calculator allows patients to enter their date of diagnosis, sex, age at diagnosis, site of their primary tumor and immune suppression status to then view their recurrence risk over time. View the current version of this calculator at

We are actively developing an exciting new calculator based on AMERK antibody results which we hope will be available in 2022.


A Virtual Merkel CELLebration

We had hoped to gather in person for our annual September event, but we decided that it was safer to celebrate virtually again this year. Over 300 people joined us for the “Merkel CELLebration” to learn about advances in research, listen to inspirational patient stories and participate in small discussion groups based on topics of interest. If you missed the event, watch a recording of the event here.


Meet one of our MCC donors: Peter Stults

Our donors are the key to continuing our mission and bolstering our research. This year, Peter Stults, a patient of Drs. Paul Nghiem and Shailender Bhatia, shared his personal Merkel cell Merkel cell Merkel cells are found in the lower part of the epidermis. Although the exact function of Merkel cells is unknown, they are thought to be touch receptors. Also known as neuroendocrine cells, they have machinery similar to nerve cells and to hormone-secreting (endocrine) cells. carcinoma carcinoma Cancer that originates in the skin or in the tissues lining the gut and ducts. story with our team. Ten years after being diagnosed, Peter’s MCC is still in remission remission A disappearance of or decrease in the signs and symptoms of cancer. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared; however, cancer may still be present in the body. In partial remission, only some signs and symptoms have gone away. . Peter’s “exceptional” experience with Drs. Nghiem, Bhatia and the rest of his care team inspired him to make a bequest to support our MCC program. Peter’s estate gift to the Seattle Merkel cell carcinoma Program is exemplary of the many patients and donors who go above and beyond to support the clinical, research and educational missions of UW Medicine. Read Peter’s story here.


UW Dermatology Named Top Research Institution, Dr. Nghiem Named Top Author for Merkel Cell Carcinoma Publications

A recent study published by the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS) titled, “Merkel Cell Carcinoma: A Bibliometric Analysis of the Top 100 Cited Publications,” has named the UW Division of Dermatology as the most frequently cited institution for Merkel cell carcinoma articles, having published 36% of the top 100 articles noted in the study. Paul Nghiem, MD, PhD, was also named the most frequently identified author for MCC research publications with 18% of all citations.

The study analyzed the 100 most frequently cited MCC publications published between the years 1970 and 2019. Of the top 10 most frequently cited MCC publications, Dr. Nghiem and his co-authors’ publications were ranked first, third, sixth and tenth place!


Personal Updates

You may remember last year that our family adopted a labradoodle puppy named Kudo. He is now enormous and livened up many of our Zoom calls. Alex is a senior at Harvey Mudd College and will finish his studies in computer science and music this coming May. Max is enjoying his junior year of high school and was delighted his ultimate frisbee team won their league with a 10-0 record. Both boys are incredibly appreciative to be back to school in-person.

The UW Division of Dermatology celebrated our 60th anniversary in 2021. A “Blue Ribbon Panel” with our peer institutions recommended that we become an independent department in 2023, so we are currently taking the required steps to make this transition. This change will enable our group to attract the best faculty and trainees.


Thank You

Thank you for setting the stage stage Physicians determine the stage of cancer by performing physical exams and tests. Stages describe the extent of cancer within the body, especially whether the disease has spread (metastasized) from the primary site to other parts of the body. for our exceptional researchers to truly change the future for people with MCC! This infographic shares an example of how philanthropy has transformed patient care in recent years.


Support Our Research and Education

If you are interested in supporting MCC research, please go to: If you have any questions about our work, please contact me or my advancement colleagues Christine Chan, UW Medicine Director of Philanthropy at [email protected] or 206.221.3286 or Hollie Seiler, Associate Director for Philanthropy, at [email protected] or 907.347.2378.


With warm wishes and gratitude,

Paul Nghiem, MD, PhD

Professor & Head, University of Washington Dermatology

George F. Odland Endowed Chair in Dermatology

Affiliate Investigator, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Professor, Adjunct, of Pathology and Oral Health Sciences

Clinical Director, Skin Oncology, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance