How a Virus Causes a Rare, Aggressive Skin Cancer May Help Lead to New Treatments

Grantee: Richard Wang, MD, PhD
Institution: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
Area of Research: Tumor Biochemistry and Endocrinology
Term: 7/01/2018 to 06/30/2022

“As a dermatologist, I see patients with viral skin infections, like warts, all the time, but these warts almost never result in dangerous cancers. By studying why some viral infections will develop into cancers, while others do not, I hope to identify pathways in immune cells
that can be targeted to treat these cancers and give a better understanding of cancer development in general.”­
—Richard Wang, MD, PhD

The Challenge: Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare and aggressive type of cancer that starts in the skin. If left untreated, it has a high risk of coming back or spreading to other parts of the body, and there are fewer treatments available for MCC that has spread.

About 80% of MCC cases are caused by a virus called Merkel cell polyomavirus, but how the virus causes tumors to grow is not known. Only about half of patients with advanced MCC respond well to the current standard of care. A better understanding of how this virus promotes the cancer could yield better treatments for this cancer in the future.

The Research: To better understand MCC, Richard Wang, MD, PhD, and his team compared Merkel cell polyomavirus to two other very similar skin viruses that infect the skin, but do not cause cancer. In a recently published study, they reported that unlike the two other skin viruses, the cancer-causing Merkel cell polyomavirus “hijacks” a signaling pathway normally active in immune cells and uses it to promote its own growth and survival.

“The carefully controlled activation of the immune system is a critical defense against the development of cancers,” Wang explained. “However, when inappropriately activated, immune signaling pathways can actually promote the development of cancers.”

He and his team hope that continued studies into how these pathways function will yield new treatment for MCC and other cancers that abnormal activation of immune signaling pathways.

Why it Matters: Merkel cell polyomavirus was first discovered in 2008, and scientists are still learning about it. The pathway and genes that Wang and his team learned are “turned on” by the Merkel cell polyomavirus may be a future target for drugs to treat advanced MCC and possibly other cancers, as well.

“Interestingly, the same pathway we found is also critical in the development of other cancers like multiple myeloma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and melanoma,” Wang said.

To learn more about Dr. Wang's research, see: Preventing Skin Cancer from Highjacking the Body's Sugar.