AXL antibody and AXL-ADC mediate antitumor efficacy via targeting AXL in tumor-intrinsic epithelial-mesenchymal transition and tumor-associated M2-like macrophage

Jin-peng Pei1, Yue Wang1, Lan-ping Ma2, Xin Wang2, Liang Liu1, Yu Zhang1, Rui Jin1, Zhi-qiang Ren1, Yan Deng1, Jing-kang Shen2, Tao Meng2, Ker Yu1
1 Department of Pharmacology, Fudan University School of Pharmacy, Shanghai 201203, China
2 Department of Medicinal Chemistry, State Key Laboratory of Drug Research, Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai 201203, China
Correspondence to: Jing-kang Shen:, Tao Meng:, Ker Yu:,
DOI: 10.1038/s41401-022-01047-6
Received: 7 July 2022
Accepted: 27 December 2022
Advance online: 17 January 2023


The receptor tyrosine kinase AXL is an emerging driver of cancer recurrence, while its molecular mechanism remains unclear. In this study we investigated how AXL regulated the disease progression and poor prognosis in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). We performed AXL transcriptome analysis from TCGA datasets, and found that AXL expression was significantly elevated in NSCLC and TNBC correlating with poor prognosis, epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and immune-tolerant tumor microenvironment (TME). Knockdown of AXL or treatment with two independent AXL antibodies (named anti-AXL and AXL02) all diminished cell migration and EMT in AXL-high expressing NSCLC and TNBC cell lines. In a mouse model of 4T1 TNBC, administration of anti-AXL antibody substantially inhibited lung metastases formation and growth, accompanied by reduced downstream signaling activation, EMT and proliferation index, as well as an increased apoptosis and activated anti-tumor immunity. We found that AXL was abundantly activated in tumor nodule-infiltrated M2-macrophages. A specific anti-AXL antibody blocked bone marrow-derived macrophage (BMDM) M2-polarization in vitro. Targeting of AXL in M2-macrophage in addition to tumor cell substantially suppressed CSF-1 production and eliminated M2-macrophage in TME, leading to a coordinated enhancement in both the innate and adaptive immunity reflecting M1-like macrophages, mature dendritic cells, cytotoxic T cells and B cells. We generated a novel and humanized AXL-ADC (AXL02-MMAE) employing a site-specific conjugation platform. AXL02- MMAE exerted potent cytotoxicity against a panel of AXL-high expressing tumor cell lines (IC50 < 0.1 nmol/L) and suppressed in vivo growth of multiple NSCLC and glioma tumors (a minimum efficacy dose<1 mg/kg). Compared to chemotherapy, AXL02-MMAE achieved a superior efficacy in regressing large sized tumors, eliminated AXL-H tumor cell-dependent M2-macrophage infiltration with a robust accumulation of inflammatory macrophages and mature dendritic cells. Our results support AXL-targeted therapy for treatment of advanced NSCLC and TNBC.
Keywords: AXL; NSCLC; TNBC; M2-macrophage; antibody-drug conjugate

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