Axl and Mertk Receptors Cooperate to Promote Breast Cancer Progression by Combined Oncogenic Signaling and Evasion of Host Antitumor Immunity

Cancer Res. 2021 Feb 1;81(3):698-712. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-20-2066. Epub 2020 Nov 25.


Despite the promising clinical benefit of targeted and immune checkpoint blocking therapeutics, current strategies have limited success in breast cancer, indicating that additional inhibitory pathways are required to complement existing therapeutics. TAM receptors (Tyro-3, Axl, and Mertk) are often correlated with poor prognosis because of their capacities to sustain an immunosuppressive environment. Here, we ablate Axl on tumor cells using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing, and by targeting Mertk in the tumor microenvironment (TME), we observed distinct functions of TAM as oncogenic kinases, as well as inhibitory immune receptors. Depletion of Axl suppressed cell intrinsic oncogenic properties, decreased tumor growth, reduced the incidence of lung metastasis and increased overall survival of mice when injected into mammary fat pad of syngeneic mice, and demonstrated synergy when combined with anti-PD-1 therapy. Blockade of Mertk function on macrophages decreased efferocytosis, altered the cytokine milieu, and resulted in suppressed macrophage gene expression patterns. Mertk-knockout mice or treatment with anti-Mertk-neutralizing mAb also altered the cellular immune profile, resulting in a more inflamed tumor environment with enhanced T-cell infiltration into tumors and T-cell-mediated cytotoxicity. The antitumor activity from Mertk inhibition was abrogated by depletion of cytotoxic CD8α T cells by using anti-CD8α mAb or by transplantation of tumor cells into B6.CB17-Prkdc SCID mice. Our data indicate that targeting Axl expressed on tumor cells and Mertk in the TME is predicted to have a combinatorial benefit to enhance current immunotherapies and that Axl and Mertk have distinct functional activities that impair host antitumor response. SIGNIFICANCE: This study demonstrates how TAM receptors act both as oncogenic tyrosine kinases and as receptors that mediate immune evasion in cancer progression.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axl Receptor Tyrosine Kinase
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immune Evasion / genetics
  • Immune Evasion / immunology*
  • Immunotherapy / methods
  • Kaplan-Meier Estimate
  • Mammary Neoplasms, Experimental / genetics
  • Mammary Neoplasms, Experimental / immunology*
  • Mammary Neoplasms, Experimental / therapy
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Mice, SCID
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / genetics
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / immunology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / metabolism
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / genetics
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / immunology*
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / genetics
  • Signal Transduction / immunology*
  • c-Mer Tyrosine Kinase / genetics
  • c-Mer Tyrosine Kinase / immunology*
  • c-Mer Tyrosine Kinase / metabolism


  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • Mertk protein, mouse
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases
  • c-Mer Tyrosine Kinase
  • Axl Receptor Tyrosine Kinase