Efficient clearance of early apoptotic cells by human macrophages requires M2c polarization and MerTK induction

J Immunol. 2012 Oct 1;189(7):3508-20. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.1200662. Epub 2012 Aug 31.


Mer tyrosine kinase (MerTK) is a major macrophage apoptotic cell (AC) receptor. Its functional impairment promotes autoimmunity and atherosclerosis, whereas overexpression correlates with poor prognosis in cancer. However, little is known about mechanisms regulating MerTK expression in humans. We found that MerTK expression is heterogenous among macrophage subsets, being mostly restricted to anti-inflammatory M2c (CD14(+)CD16(+)CD163(+)CD204(+)CD206(+)CD209(-)) cells, differentiated by M-CSF or glucocorticoids. Small numbers of MerTK(+) "M2c-like" cells are also detectable among circulating CD14(bright)CD16(+) monocytes. MerTK expression levels adapt to changing immunologic environment, being suppressed in M1 and M2a macrophages and in dendritic cells. Remarkably, although glucocorticoid-induced differentiation is IL-10 independent, M-CSF-driven M2c polarization and related MerTK upregulation require IL-10. However, neither IL-10 alone nor TGF-β are sufficient to fully differentiate M2c (CD16(+)CD163(+)MerTK(+)) macrophages. M-CSF and IL-10, both released by T lymphocytes, may thus be required together to promote regulatory T cell-mediated induction of anti-inflammatory monocytes-macrophages. MerTK enables M2c macrophages to clear early ACs more efficiently than other macrophage subsets, and it mediates AC clearance by CD14(bright)CD16(+) monocytes. Moreover, M2c cells release Gas6, which in turn amplifies IL-10 secretion via MerTK. IL-10-dependent induction of the Gas6/MerTK pathway may, therefore, constitute a positive loop for M2c macrophage homeostasis and a critical checkpoint for maintenance of anti-inflammatory conditions. Our findings give new insight into human macrophage polarization and favor a central role for MerTK in regulation of macrophage functions. Eliciting M2c polarization can have therapeutic utility for diseases such as lupus, in which a defective AC clearance contributes to initiate and perpetuate the pathological process.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / genetics
  • Apoptosis / immunology*
  • Autocrine Communication / genetics
  • Autocrine Communication / immunology
  • Cell Differentiation / immunology
  • Cell Movement / genetics
  • Cell Movement / immunology*
  • Cell Polarity / genetics
  • Cell Polarity / immunology*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Dendritic Cells / cytology
  • Dendritic Cells / enzymology
  • Dendritic Cells / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Macrophages / cytology
  • Macrophages / enzymology*
  • Macrophages / immunology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / biosynthesis*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / genetics
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / physiology
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / biosynthesis*
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / genetics
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / physiology
  • Transcriptional Activation / immunology
  • c-Mer Tyrosine Kinase


  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • MERTK protein, human
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases
  • c-Mer Tyrosine Kinase