Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is an aggressive cutaneous neuroendocrine malignancy that is associated with a poor prognosis. The pathogenesis of MCC is not well understood, and despite a recent plethora of mutational analyses, we have yet to find a set of signature mutations implicated in the majority of cases. Mutations, including TP53, Retinoblastoma and PIK3CA, have been documented in subsets of patients. Other mechanisms are also likely at play, including infection with the Merkel cell polyomavirus in a subset of patients, dysregulated immune surveillance, epigenetic alterations, aberrant protein expression, posttranslational modifications and microRNAs. In this review, we summarize what is known about MCC genetic mutations and chromosomal abnormalities, and their clinical significance. We also examine aberrant protein function and microRNA expression, and discuss the therapeutic and prognostic implications of these findings. Multiple clinical trials designed to selectively target overexpressed oncogenes in MCC are currently underway, though most are still in early phases. As we accumulate more molecular data on MCC, we will be better able to understand its pathogenic mechanisms, develop libraries of targeted therapies, and define molecular prognostic signatures to enhance our clinicopathologic knowledge.
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