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Immune checkpoint inhibitors help release molecular brakes that allow cancer-killing immune cells (cyan) fight Merkel cell carcinoma (magenta). But to wage an effective seige against an MCC tumor, immune cells need fresh reinforcements. Fred Hutch and UW Medicine studies show that it's the presence of these reinforcements in a patient's blood that best predict whether checkpoint inhibitors will work for them. Image courtesy of Kimberly Smythe and Kristin Robinson / Fred Hutch Translational Pathology
February 12, 2024

New biomarker could one day help tailor immunotherapy for Merkel cell carcinoma

The findings help explain why only certain MCC patients respond to immune checkpoint inhibitors.
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Faculty Research

It's the cancer-fighting immune cells in a Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) patient's blood — not their tumor — that best predicts whether a certain type of immunotherapy will work, according to new work from two teams of scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and the University of Washington School of Medicine.

The findings are a step toward the development of a clinical test that could someday guide MCC treatment.

In back-to-back papers published in Cell Reports Medicine, the researchers showed that the frequency of circulating battle-ready anti-cancer immune cells act as a biomarker in patients with this aggressive skin tumor: MCC patients with higher levels in their blood are more likely to respond to immune checkpoint inhibitors, or ICIs.

Because these cells are the cells that ICIs help fight cancer, the results also suggest strategies scientists could use to improve patients’ chances of responding to ICIs.

Department of Medicine faculty and staff involved in the research include Drs. Aude Chapuis, associate professor, and Joshua Veatch, assistant professor (Hematology and Oncology), and Lichen Jing, research scientist, and Dr. David Koelle, professor (Allergy and Infectious Diseases).


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