AXL is a key factor for cell plasticity and promotes metastasis in Pancreatic cancer

Wenting Du, Natalie Z. Phinney, Huocong Huang, Zhaoning Wang, Jill Westcott, Jason E. Toombs, Yuqing Zhang, Muhammad S Beg, Thomas M Wilkie, James B. Lorens, Rolf A Brekken

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDA), a leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, has a high metastatic rate, and is associated with persistent immune suppression. AXL, a member of the TAM (TYRO3, AXL, MERTK) receptor tyrosine kinase family, is a driver of metastasis and immune suppression in multiple cancer types. Here we use single-cell RNA-sequencing to reveal that AXL is expressed highly in tumor cells that have a mesenchymal-like phenotype and that AXL expression correlates with classic markers of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition. We demonstrate that AXL deficiency extends survival, reduces primary and metastatic burden, and enhances sensitivity to gemcitabine in an autochthonous model of PDA. PDA in AXL-deficient mice displayed a more differentiated histology, higher nucleoside transporter expression, and a more active immune microenvironment compared with PDA in wild-type mice. Finally, we demonstrate that AXL-positive poorly differentiated tumor cells are critical for PDA progression and metastasis, emphasizing the potential of AXL as a therapeutic target in PDA. Implications: These studies implicate AXL as a marker of undifferentiated PDA cells and a target for therapy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1412-1421
Number of pages10
JournalMolecular Cancer Research
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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