Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is an aggressive neuroendocrine skin cancer that frequently carries an integrated Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) genome and expresses viral transforming antigens (TAgs). MCC tumor cells also express signature genes detected in skin-resident, postmitotic Merkel cells, including atonal bHLH transcription factor 1 (ATOH1), which is required for Merkel cell development from epidermal progenitors. We now report the use of in vivo cellular reprogramming, using ATOH1, to drive MCC development from murine epidermis. We generated mice that conditionally expressed MCPyV TAgs and ATOH1 in epidermal cells, yielding microscopic collections of proliferating MCC-like cells arising from hair follicles. Immunostaining of these nascent tumors revealed p53 accumulation and apoptosis, and targeted deletion of transformation related protein 53 (Trp53) led to development of gross skin tumors with classic MCC histology and marker expression. Global transcriptome analysis confirmed the close similarity of mouse and human MCCs, and hierarchical clustering showed conserved upregulation of signature genes. Our data establish that expression of MCPyV TAgs in ATOH1-reprogrammed epidermal cells and their neuroendocrine progeny initiates hair follicle–derived MCC tumorigenesis in adult mice. Moreover, progression to full-blown MCC in this model requires loss of p53, mimicking the functional inhibition of p53 reported in human MCPyV-positive MCCs.
Monique E. Verhaegen, Paul W. Harms, Julia J. Van Goor, Jacob Arche, Matthew T. Patrick, Dawn Wilbert, Haley Zabawa, Marina Grachtchouk, Chia-Jen Liu, Kevin Hu, Michael C. Kelly, Ping Chen, Thomas L. Saunders, Stephan Weidinger, Li-Jyun Syu, John S. Runge, Johann E. Gudjonsson, Sunny Y. Wong, Isaac Brownell, Marcin Cieslik, Aaron M. Udager, Arul M. Chinnaiyan, Lam C. Tsoi, Andrzej A. Dlugosz