BACKGROUND: Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is an aggressive neoplasm, which is often associated with Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV). Programmed death-1 (PD-1) and its ligand PD-L1 are key players of the tumor microenvironment (TME).
METHODS: Fourteen paraffin-embedded tissue samples of MCC were stratified by their MCPyV detection. Apart from PD-L1 and PD-1, the TME was further characterized for the expression of CD33, FOXP3 and MxA.
RESULTS: We observed PD-1 in 2 of 12 tumors. PD-L1 expression by tumor cells was found in 7 of 8 MCPyV(+) samples and was detected particularly in the periphery. The tumor cells were surrounded by a shield of PD-L1/CD33 immune cells. Expression of PD-L1 by the tumor cells was higher in areas with a denser immune infiltrate. CD33(+) cells without direct tumor contact were PD-L1 negative. Only a low number of FOXP3(+) regulatory T-cells was admixed. Tumor cells of MCPyV(-) samples were mostly PD-L1 negative.
CONCLUSIONS: Our data demonstrate that PD-L1 expression occurs in tumor and immune cells, in areas in which they are close in contact. Interferon seems to play a role in this interaction. We postulate that PD-L1(+)/CD33(+) cells shield the tumor against attacking PD-1(+) immune cells. Therefore, next to anti-PD-1/PD-L1 antibodies, blockade of CD33 seems to be a promising therapeutic approach.