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World-first study into rare local skin cancer at PA Hospital

9 February 2021

Princess Alexandra Hospital will lead a world-first study into Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare but deadly skin cancer, which is on the rise.

PA Hospital Medical Oncologist, Dr Wen Xu said Queensland has the highest incidence in the world of Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC), an aggressive form of skin cancer far more deadly than melanoma. 

“The outcomes for this type of cancer are shocking and average survival rates, even for early stage disease is really appalling,” said Dr Xu.

“We have good evidence proving that immunotherapy can be a very effective treatment for patients with Merkel cell carcinoma where the cancer is already metastatic, but we don’t yet know if it will work for early stage disease in improving cure rates.

“The ‘IMAT trial’ will focus on early stage patients with MCC and test the role of immunotherapy immediately post-surgery and radiation,” said Dr Xu. 

Given the rarity of Merkel cell carcinoma and the traditionally older patient group, trials have been historically hard to recruit to and without good trials it has been very difficult to improve care in this cancer.

“Importantly, immunotherapy puts less strain on the body than chemotherapy and many patient can tolerate it well and have a good quality of life even if they are relatively elderly and frail.”

“On average, metastatic patients with this disease live only around eight months on chemotherapy, but are now surviving for many years with the introduction of immunotherapy.

“We are hoping the introduction of this treatment in early stage disease will really make a big difference,” he said. 

The trial is currently being rolled out in 12 sites across Australia and patients are recruited through referral to PAH Oncology.

“In Australia, the Merkel cell cancer that we have is biologically very distinct from the rest of the world, so it’s very important for PAH to have a leadership role in a trial for a rare local cancer that currently has very poor outcomes.”

Last updated 15 February 2021
Last reviewed 9 February 2021

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