Pediatric leukemia survival rates have improved dramatically over the past decades. However, current treatment protocols are still largely ineffective in cases of relapsed leukemia and are associated with a significant rate of chronic health conditions. Thus, there is a continued need for new therapeutic options. Here, we show that mer receptor tyrosine kinase (MerTK) was abnormally expressed in approximately one half of pediatric T-cell leukemia patient samples and T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) cell lines. Stimulation of MerTK by the ligand Gas6 led to activation of the prosurvival proteins Erk 1/2 and Stat5, and MerTK-dependent activation of the STAT pathway in leukemia represents a novel finding. Furthermore, inhibition of MerTK expression increased the sensitivity of T-ALL cells to treatment with chemotherapeutic agents and decreased the oncogenic potential of the Jurkat T-ALL cell line in a methylcellulose colony-forming assay. Lastly, inhibition of MerTK expression significantly increased median survival in a xenograft mouse model of leukemia (30.5 days vs 60 days, P<0.0001). These results suggest that inhibition of MerTK is a promising therapeutic strategy for the treatment of leukemia and may allow for dose reduction of currently used chemotherapeutics resulting in decreased rates of therapy-associated toxicities.
Keywords: MerTK; T-cell leukemia; receptor tyrosine kinase; xenograft mouse model.