University of Washington

Seattle, WA
Professor of Dermatology, Medicine & Pathology
George F. Odland Endowed Chair and Head of the Division of Dermatology
Affiliate Investigator, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Research Projects

Dr. Nghiem is a physician-scientist and leader in research and treatment of the rare and deadly skin cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC). The reported incidence of MCC has quadrupled in the past 2 decades, and its associated mortality is 3 times higher than that of malignant melanoma. The incidence and survival of MCC caused by a polyomavirus are strongly linked to the dysfunction of the immune system’s T cells.

Studies by Dr. Nghiem’s team have resulted in the first two FDA-approved therapies for MCC – the immune checkpoint inhibitors, avelumab and pembrolizumab, which release the natural brake on the immune system and allow T cells to kill cancer cells. His team developed a blood test that is now routinely used clinically to detect recurrent MCC earlier and more reliably than scans.

Dr. Nghiem and Dr. Suzanne Topalian, a leader in cancer immunotherapy and MCC induced by UV light, have previously discovered that 50% of MCC patients can have long-lasting benefit from the new immunotherapy called immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs). It is not known why other MCC patients do not respond.

With NFCR support, Dr. Nghiem and Dr. Topalian are collaborating to tackle the problem of why and how the body’s immune system sees virus-induced and UV light-induced MCC differently. With cutting-edge technologies and samples of tumors from patients with either virus- or UV light-induced MCC, the collaborative teams will study every gene in the tumor infiltrating T cells or TILs – the cancer fighting immune cells.

This direct comparison of T cell responses to the two types of MCC can lead to new combinations of existing ICIs and new therapies to save more patients with MCC.


Paul Nghiem, M.D., Ph.D., is the George F. Odland Endowed Chair and Head of the Division of Dermatology at the University of Washington. In 1994, he received his M.D. and his Ph.D. in cancer biology from Stanford Medical School. Prior to joining the University of Washington in 2006, he was an Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Dr. Nghiem has been recognized for his clinical and laboratory research. He received the 2014 Alfred Marchionini Research Prize (a single international prize awarded to a dermatologist every four years at the World Congress of Dermatology). In 2019 he was awarded the Eugene J. Van Scott Award for Significant Contributions Toward Innovative Therapy of the Skin. Dr. Nghiem has published over 160 papers that have been cited over 17,000 times.

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Related Updates

What is Genomic Sequencing, and Who Can Benefit?

There’s a paradigm shift taking place in the world of cancer treatment. Experts are moving away from an organ-focused approach to treatment, like using radiation to treat the specific area affected by cancer. Instead, they’re looking at genomic sequencing.  Genomics is the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of an individual’s genes. Regarding cancer, genomics allows experts to examine DNA to determine an individual’s risk of cancer through genomic sequencing. This means that oncologists can provide more individualized treatment options for patients using precision medicine.  How can cancer risk be determined through genomic sequencing? Parents pass along many traits to their children, such as hair and eye color. Unfortunately, the risk of developing certain types of cancer can also pass along. By examining DNA, experts can identify certain changes in a person’s DNA known for increasing their risk of developing various types of cancer. However, not all cancers pass genetically. In fact, only five to ten percent of all cancers are believed to have an inherited gene mutation. It is important to note that no test can provide exact answers about a person’s inherited cancer risk. Genetic testing can tell whether a specific genetic mutation exists in the DNA. However, it cannot tell whether an individual will develop the disease associated with that mutation later in life or not. What is the benefit of genomic sequencing? Genomic sequencing cannot prevent a cancer diagnosis but can help identify cancer-related DNA mutations. This means an individual can implement precautionary measures. These measures could include making healthy lifestyle changes, such as exercising regularly, ceasing smoking, or reducing alcohol consumption. Depending on the type of mutation, medications may be available to reduce one’s risk of developing cancer. Similarly, genomic sequencing may highlight the option of surgery to remove an organ or gland to prevent cancer from forming or promote undergoing more health screenings regularly.  Who should utilize genomic sequencing? Experts typically only recommend genetic sequencing for patients whose families have a history of certain cancers or patterns of cancer. Doctors may order genetic testing for people that have: Multiple first-degree relatives with cancer diagnoses; Numerous relatives who have been diagnosed with the same cancer on one side of the family; A family history of cancers linked to a single gene mutation, such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or pancreatic cancer; Family member(s) who has been diagnosed with more than one type of cancer; Family member(s) who has been diagnosed with cancer at a younger age than typically seen for that cancer, such as colon cancer; Close relatives who have been diagnosed with cancers linked to rare hereditary cancer syndromes, such as Hereditary Breast & Ovarian Cancer Syndrome (HBOC), Cowden Syndrome, or Lynch Syndrome; or Family member(s) who has been diagnosed with rare cancer, such as breast cancer in a male. Can we expect more research in genomic sequencing?  National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) is committed to advancing genomic research and its potential to be the future of developing treatment plans for cancer patients. As such, NFCR funds a dozen world-renowned researchers paving the way in genomic research. […]

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