Case Reports

Merkel Cell Carcinoma in a Vein Graft Donor Site

Author and Disclosure Information

The development of malignancies in graft donor sites is rare and may be caused by de novo malignancies as well as metastatic and iatrogenic spread. Malignancies in graft donor sites are distinguished from Marjolin ulcers by some investigators because they occur in healed surgical wounds rather than in chronic wounds or unstable scars and tend to occur sooner after injury. We present a unique case of Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) developing in a vein graft donor site 18 years after vein harvesting.

Practice Points

  • Malignancies (both primary and metastatic) can develop in graft donor sites including donor sites for split-thickness skin, full-thickness skin, tendon, bone, and vein grafts.
  • Primary malignancies that develop in graft donor sites may be distinct from malignancies that develop in chronic wounds, as the former occur in healed surgical wounds and tend to occur sooner after injury (ie, weeks to months after graft harvesting versus years).
  • Although the occurrence is rare, graft donor sites should be examined periodically for development of malignancies.



Case Report

A 70-year-old man with history of coronary artery disease presented with a growing lesion on the right leg of 1 year’s duration. The lesion developed at a vein graft donor site for a coronary artery bypass that had been performed 18 years prior to presentation. The patient reported that the lesion was sensitive to touch. Physical examination revealed a 27-mm, firm, violaceous plaque on the medial aspect of the right upper shin (Figure 1). Mild pitting edema also was noted on both lower legs but was more prominent on the right leg. A 6-mm punch biopsy was performed.

Figure 1. Violaceous nodule on the medial aspect of the right upper shin within a scar.

Histology showed diffuse infiltration of the dermis and subcutaneous fat by intermediate-sized atypical blue cells with scant cytoplasm (Figure 2). The tumor exhibited moderate cytologic atypia with occasional mitotic figures, and lymphovascular invasion was present. Staining for CD3 was negative within the tumor, but a few reactive lymphocytes were highlighted at the periphery. Staining for CD20 and CD30 was negative. Strong and diffuse staining for cyto-keratin 20 and pan-cytokeratin was noted within the tumor with the distinctive perinuclear pattern characteristic of Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC). Staining for cytokeratin 7 was negative. Synaptophysin and chromogranin were strongly and diffusely positive within the tumor, consistent with a diagnosis of MCC.

Figure 2. Diffuse infiltration of the dermis and subcutaneous fat by intermediatesized atypical blue cells with scant cytoplasm (H&E, original magnification ×40).

The patient was found to have stage IIA (T2N0M0) MCC. Computed tomography completed for staging showed no evidence of metastasis. Wide local excision of the lesion was performed. Margins were negative, as was a right inguinal sentinel lymph node dissection. Because of the size of the tumor and the presence of lymphovascular invasion, radiation therapy at the primary tumor site was recommended. Local radiation treatment (200 cGy daily) was administered for a total dose of 5000 cGy over 5 weeks. The patient currently is free of recurrence or metastases and is being followed by the oncology, surgery, and dermatology departments.


Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare aggressive cutaneous malignancy. The exact pathogenesis is unknown, but immunosuppression and UV radiation, possibly through its immunosuppressive effects, appear to be contributing factors. More recently, the Merkel cell polyomavirus has been linked to MCC in approximately 80% of cases.1,2

Merkel cell carcinoma is more common in individuals with fair skin, and the average age at diagnosis is 69 years.1 Patients typically present with an asymptomatic, firm, erythematous or violaceous, dome-shaped nodule or a small indurated plaque, most commonly on sun-exposed areas of the head and neck followed by the upper and lower extremities including the hands, feet, ankles, and wrists. Fifteen percent to 20% of MCCs develop on the legs and feet.1 Our patient presented with an MCC that developed on the right shin at a vein graft donor site.

The development of a cutaneous malignancy in a chronic wound (also known as a Marjolin ulcer) is a rare but well-recognized process. These malignancies occur in previously traumatized or chronically inflamed wounds and have been found to occur most commonly in chronic burn wounds, especially in ungrafted full-thickness burns. Squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) are the most common malignancies to arise in chronic wounds, but basal cell carcinomas, adenocarcinomas, melanomas, malignant fibrous histiocytomas, adenoacanthomas, liposarcomas, and osteosarcomas also have been reported.3 There also have been a few reports of MCC associated with Bowen disease that developed in burn wounds.4 These malignancies generally occur years after injury (average, 35.5 years), but there have been reports of keratoacanthomas developing as early as 3 weeks after injury.5,6

In some reports, malignancies in skin graft donor sites are differentiated from Marjolin ulcers, as the former appear in healed surgical wounds rather than in chronic unstable wounds and tend to occur sooner (ie, in weeks to months after graft harvesting).7,8 The development of these malignancies in graft donor sites is not as well recognized and has been reported in donor sites for split-thickness skin grafts (STSGs), full-thickness skin grafts, tendon grafts, and bone grafts. In addition to malignancies that arise de novo, some develop due to metastatic and iatrogenic spread. The majority of reported malignancies in tendon and bone graft donor sites have been due to metastasis or iatrogenic spread.9-14

Iatrogenic implantation of tumor cells is a well-recognized phenomenon. Hussain et al10 reported a case of implantation of SCC in an STSG donor site, most likely due to direct seeding from a hollow needle used to infiltrate local anesthetic in the tumor area and the STSG. In this case, metastasis could not be completely ruled out.10 There also have been reports of osteosarcoma, ameloblastoma, scirrhous carcinoma of the breast, and malignant fibrous histiocytoma thought to be implanted at bone graft donor sites.14-17 Iatrogenic spread of malignancies can occur through seeding from contaminated gloves or instruments such as hollow bore needles or trocar placement in laparoscopic surgery.11 Airborne spread also may be possible, as viable melanoma cells have been detected in electrocautery plume in mice.13


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