Clinical Review

Merkel Cell Carcinoma: A Review

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Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare neuroendocrine tumor of unknown origin that usually presents in the elderly population. A novel polyomavirus has been associated with a large percentage of tumors. Immune response plays an important role in pathogenesis of MCC. This article reviews the history, pathogenesis, presentation, and treatment of MCC. Future treatments also are discussed briefly.

Practice Points

  • Merkel cell carcinoma has been associated with a novel polyomavirus.
  • Merkel cell carcinoma follows a very aggressive course and is most likely metastatic at diagnosis.



Merkel cells originally were described by German histopathologist Friedrich Sigmund Merkel in 1875. These unique tactile cells were described as epidermal, nondendritic, and nonkeratinizing. Merkel cells are thought to arise from the neural crest and are believed to be primary neural cells found within the basal layer of the epidermis.1,2 They likely function primarily as slowly adapting type I mechanoreceptors. Origin from the neural crest is controversial, as other investigators have suggested derivation from epidermal keratinocytes.1,2 Tumor cells have been linked to the amine precursor uptake and decarboxylation system.3 In 1972, Toker4 described several cases of trabecular or sweat gland carcinomas of the skin. Upon further investigation, the cells that comprised these tumors were found to have dense core granules on electron microscopy, typical of Merkel cells.1,2 Other terms such as neuroendocrine carcinoma of the skin, small cell carcinoma of the skin, and anaplastic carcinoma of the skin have been used to describe Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC),1 which was suggested by De Wolf-Peeters et al5 in 1980.

Despite being a rare malignancy, MCC follows an aggressive clinical course. Upon presentation, approximately 66% of patients have local disease, 27% have nodal involvement, and 7% have distant metastasis.1 Future treatments will likely center around the novel Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) and modification of immune responses toward tumor cells. Standardization continues to be lacking in both staging and treatment of this aggressive tumor.

Epidemiology of MCC

Figure 1. A 2.3×1.5×1.2-cm, hemorrhagic, crusted,
exophytic tumor on the left cheek.

Figure 2. Merkel cells are small- to medium-sized cells
with round nuclei and scant cytoplasm. Granular or stippled
chromatin can be seen (A)(H&E, original magnification ×40).
Merkel cell carcinoma with trabecular pattern (B)
(H&E, original magnification ×10).

Between 1986 and 2006, the incidence of MCC grew substantially.1,2 Figures have been reported at 0.15 cases per 100,000 individuals to 0.6 cases per 100,000 individuals worldwide. In the United States, the age-adjusted incidence of MCC is estimated at 0.24 per 100,000 person-years, which is higher than the estimated 0.13 per 100,000 person-years found in Europe.3 The highest incidence worldwide has been noted in Western Australia, likely due to high levels of UV exposure.1 The incidence of MCC in psoriasis patients who are treated with oral methoxsalen (psoralen) and UVA photochemotherapy is 100 times greater than in the general population, further supporting the role of UV light in the development of MCC.1 White individuals have the highest incidence of MCC worldwide, with men being affected more frequently than women.1,3 The majority of patients with MCC are diagnosed at 70 years or older.1 Approximately 5% of reported MCC patients are diagnosed before 50 years of age.2 Immunosuppression and immunodeficiency likely play a role in the pathogenesis of MCC, and the incidence is increased in solid organ transplant recipients, most commonly renal transplant recipients,1 as well as individuals with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, human immunodeficiency virus infection, and AIDS.1,3 Patients with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis also are at increased risk for MCC.3 Individuals who are diagnosed with MCC are at an increased risk for development of other malignancies including nonmelanoma skin cancers, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Hodgkin lymphoma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.3

Clinical Presentation of MCC

The clinical presentation of MCC can be variable. Most tumors present as firm, red to purple, nontender papules or nodules (Figure 1).1 Tumor size may range from 2 to 200 mm but is most commonly less than 20 mm.2 Growth can be rapid, and tumors are most commonly located on sun-exposed skin. The head and neck areas account for 48% of all MCC cases,1 with the eyelids being frequently involved.2 Merkel cell carcinoma also has been reported on the arms, legs, trunk, back, and buttocks.1 Non–sun-exposed areas are less commonly affected. Mucosal sites (eg, larynx, nasal cavity, pharynx, mouth) account for 5% of primary MCCs.1 Merkel cell carcinoma also has been reported to affect the vulva and penis. Subcutaneous primary MCC has presented without overlying epidermal changes.1 In a case series by Heath et al,6 14% (27/195) of MCC patients presented with nodal disease without any identifiable primary tumor, with the inguinal nodal chain being the most common for this presentation. It currently is not known whether these nodal tumors are primary tumors or metastatic disease with a regression of the primary tumor.1

Histopathology of MCC

Figure 3. Positive chromogranin staining (A)(original
magnification ×40). Cytokeratin 20 staining in the
characteristic paranuclear dot–like pattern (B)(original
magnification ×40). Negative thyroid transcription
factor 1 staining (C)(original magnification ×40).

Merkel cells are small- to medium-sized basophilic cells with round nuclei and scant cytoplasm. Granular or stippled chromatin can be seen on histopathology (Figure 2A).1 Some tumor cells have more vesicular chromatin, multiple small nucleoli, irregular contours, and more abundant cytoplasm. In some reports, irregular contours and abundant cytoplasm were associated with no detectible MCPyV infection.1,3 Merkel cell carcinomas have a primarily nodular architecture, and classification is based on growth pattern and cell size. Three histopathologic growth patterns have been described: nodular, infiltrative, and trabecular. The trabecular pattern is composed of interconnecting strands ofcells (Figure 2B). Tumors with solely intraepidermal involvement (MCC in situ) have been described but are exceedingly rare.1 Cell types are classified according to size, with the intermediate cell type being the most common. The small cell variant may be mistaken for a lymphocytic infiltrate due to the similar size and appearance of both types of cells.1,3


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