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Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD)

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Merkel cell carcinoma

Other Names for this Disease
  • Carcinoma, merkel cell
  • Merkel cell cancer
  • Merkle tumors
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Your Question

Can you catch this cancer from a husband that you are close to and kiss every day?

Our Answer

We have identified the following information that we hope you find helpful. If you still have questions, please contact us.

What causes Merkel cell carcinoma?

The exact underlying causes of Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) are unknown; however, researchers have identified risk factors that are strongly associated with the development of MCC. Having one or more risk factors does not mean that a person will develop MCC; most individuals with risk factors will not develop MCC. Factors that have been associated with MCC include:[1][2]

    -being over 65 years of age
    -having fair skin
    -having a history of extensive sun exposure
    -having chronic immune suppression, such as after organ transplantation or having HIV. However, most people who develop MCC are not immune suppressed.[1]

In 2008, researchers discovered that a specific virus called Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) is frequently involved in MCC.[1] MCPyV has been detected in about 80% of tumors tested and associates with the DNA of tumor cells in a way suggestive of being involved in tumor development.[1][2] It is thought that the virus causes gene mutations that lead to MCC when immune function is defective.[2] Several additional studies have validated these findings.[1]

Last updated: 6/4/2013

Are individuals with Merkel cell carcinoma contagious?

Individuals with Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) are not contagious. Although in some cases cancer can be caused by infectious agents such as specific bacteria, parasites, and viruses (pathogens), cancer is generally not considered a transmissible disease.[3]

Merkel cell polyomavirus, which has been found to be present in 80% of MCC tumors, is considered to be an organism that normally inhabits the human body; asymptomatic infection with the virus is common. It is typically acquired in early childhood.[4] MCC is a rare cancer, and the overwhelming majority of individuals who are infected with the virus will never develop MCC. The virus itself is transmissible (although the mode of transmission is not well understood), but MCC cannot be passed from one individual to another.
Last updated: 6/4/2013