Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is an aggressive poorly differentiated neuroendocrine cutaneous carcinoma associated with older age, immunodeficiency and Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) integrated within malignant cells. The presence of intra-tumoural CD8+ lymphocytes reportedly predicts better MCC-specific survival. In this study, the distribution of inflammatory cells and properties of CD8+ T lymphocytes within 20 primary MCC specimens were characterised using immunohistochemistry and multicolour immunofluorescent staining coupled to confocal microscopy. CD8+ cells and CD68+ macrophages were identified in 19/20 primary MCC. CD20+ B cells were present in 5/10, CD4+ cells in 10/10 and FoxP3+ cells in 7/10 specimens. Only two specimens had almost no inflammatory cells. Within specimens, inflammatory cells followed the same patchy distribution, focused at the edge of sheets and nodules and, in some cases, more intense in trabecular areas. CD8+ cells were outside vessels on the edge of tumour. Those few within malignant sheets typically lined up in fine septa not contacting MCC cells expressing MCPyV large T antigen. The homeostatic chemokine CXCL12 was expressed outside malignant nodules whereas its receptor CXCR4 was identified within tumour but not on CD8+ cells. CD8+ cells lacked CXCR3 and granzyme B expression irrespective of location within stroma versus
malignant nodules or of the intensity of the intra-tumoural infiltrate. In summary, diverse inflammatory cells were organised around the margin of malignant deposits suggesting response to aberrant signaling, but were unable to penetrate the tumour microenvironment itself to enable an immune response against malignant cells or their polyomavirus.