Durability of immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI) response following treatment discontinuation in advanced merkel cell carcinoma (MCC)

June 17, 2024


American Society of Clinical Oncology

Publication Date

June 17, 2024


Ramadoss T, Nichols M, Palacios C, Eroglu Z, Markowitz J, Karapetyan L, Tarhini A, Wuthrick E, Sondak V, Khushalani N, Tsai K, Brohl A

Merkelcell.org Summary

Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) that has spread far from the original location is often treated with immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy (ICI), a type of drug that boosts the immune system. However, the ideal duration for continuing ICI after the MCC has responded to the drug is unknown. This study looked at 45 patients who had a response to ICI and stopped the drug, to see how long after stopping ICI their cancer came back (recurred) or got worse. They found that 47% of patients had their MCC recur at an average of 11 months after stopping ICI. 67% of patients who stopped ICI before their MCC fully responded to treatment had their cancer recur versus 24% of patients who stopped ICI after their MCC fully responded to treatment. Additionally, 60% of patients who stopped immunotherapy due to side effects from the drug had a recurrence compared to 36% who stopped immunotherapy due to personal choice or completing the therapy. These results show that stopping immunotherapy may increase the risk of MCC coming back, especially if the MCC hasn’t been fully treated by the drug at the time of stopping treatment.


Background: Advanced MCC has a high response rate to ICI therapy, but the durability of responses once treatment is discontinued remains unclear. We therefore reviewed the long-term outcomes of advanced MCC patients at our institution who discontinued ICI treatment after achieving favorable initial response. Methods: In an IRB-approved single institution retrospective review of advanced MCC patients, we analyzed all patients who received at least one dose of anti-PD(L)1 monotherapy for unresectable or metastatic disease, achieved stable disease (SD) or better, and discontinued treatment for a reason other than disease progression. Duration of response and outcomes of subsequent therapy were assessed. Results: Of 195 advanced MCC patients treated with ICI, we identified 45 who met study criteria. Of these, 21 (47%) had a complete response (CR) to initial ICI treatment, 23 (51%) a partial response (PR) and 1 (2%) SD. Twenty-five (56%) patients discontinued ICI electively and 20 (44%) discontinued due to toxicity. In total, 21 of the 45 patients (47%) experienced disease progression at a median of 11.2 months (range 2.1-22.7 months) from ICI cessation. The median follow-up after ICI discontinuation for patients who have not experienced progression is 22.8 months (5.8-82.0 months). There was a lower rate of progression in patients who achieved CR vs. non-CR (24% vs 67%, p=0.006) and a trend towards a lower rate in those who discontinued electively vs. due to toxicity (36% vs 60%, p=0.14). For patients in whom the molecular subtype was known, there was a higher risk for progression in patients with viral MCC (12 of 16, 75%) compared to UV-associated MCC (4 of 13, 31%, p=0.02). Fifteen of the 21 patients (71%) who experienced progression were rechallenged with ICI therapy, including both single agent (12 patients, 57%) and combination (3, 14%) therapy. The remaining patients received locally-directed therapy only (3, 14%), chemotherapy (1, 5%), declined further treatment (1, 5%), or transferred care and were lost to follow up (1, 5%). Eleven of 15 ICI-retreated patients (73%) achieved an objective response to rechallenge, including all 3 patients who received combination therapy with ipilimumab+nivolumab. Twelve of the 45 patients have expired; 6 due to progressive MCC and remaining 6 known or suspected from unrelated causes. Conclusions: Patients with advanced MCC have a substantial risk of disease progression following treatment discontinuation despite initial favorable ICI response, 47% in our series with a median time to event of 11.2 months, particularly in those that achieve less than a complete response. In the setting of disease progression post-ICI discontinuation, most patients maintain sensitivity to retreatment with the same drug class. Virus-positive MCC may be a risk factor for post-discontinuation relapse, which should be validated in future studies.

View the clinical publication