MERTK, a member of the TAM (TYRO3, AXL, and MERTK) receptor tyrosine kinases, has complex and diverse roles in cell biology. On the one hand, knock-out of MERTK results in age-dependent autoimmunity characterized by failure of apoptotic cell clearance, while on the other, MERTK overexpression in cancer drives classical oncogene pathways leading to cell transformation. To better understand the interplay between cell transformation and efferocytosis, we stably expressed MERTK in human MCF10A cells, a non-tumorigenic breast epithelial cell line devoid of endogenous MERTK. While stable expression of MERTK in MCF10A resulted in enhanced motility and AKT-mediated chemoprotection, MERTK-10A cells did not form stable colonies in soft agar, or enhance proliferation compared with parental MCF10A cells. Concomitant to chemoresistance, MERTK also stimulated efferocytosis in a gain-of-function capacity. However, unlike AXL, MERTK activation was highly dependent on apoptotic cells, suggesting MERTK may preferentially interface with phosphatidylserine. Consistent with this idea, knockdown of MERTK in breast cancer cells MDA-MB 231 reduced efferocytosis, while transient or stable expression of MERTK stimulated apoptotic cell clearance in all cell lines tested. Moreover, human breast cancer cells with higher endogenous MERTK showed higher levels of efferocytosis that could be blocked by soluble TAM receptors. Finally, through MERTK, apoptotic cells induced PD-L1 expression, an immune checkpoint blockade, suggesting that cancer cells may adopt MERTK-driven efferocytosis as an immune suppression mechanism for their advantage. These data collectively identify MERTK as a significant link between cancer progression and efferocytosis, and a potentially unrealized tumor-promoting event when MERTK is overexpressed in epithelial cells.
Keywords: AXL; Apoptosis; Breast Cancer; Efferocytosis; Epithelial Cell; GAS6; MERTK; Phagocytosis; Protein S; Receptor-tyrosine Kinase.
© 2014 by The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Inc.