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Background: Mertk is a member of the Tyro3-Axl-Mertk (TAM) family of receptors and regulates phagocytosis of dying cells by macrophages. Cancer cells killed by radiation therapy direct repolarization of macrophages into immune suppressive phenotypes. Mertk-/- mice grafted with immunogenic tumors have enhanced tumor control following ionizing radiation compared to Mertkwt mice. Gas6 is the endogenous ligand for Mertk and its ability to signal through Mertk requires a post-translational vitamin k-dependent modification that is inhibited by warfarin.

Methods: Mertk-/- and WT mice were injected subcutaneously in the flank with 5E4 CT26 cells (BALB/c) or 5E6 Panc02-SIY cells (C57BL/6) and allowed to grow to 5 mm before treatment with 250 μg anti-CD8α antibodies, warfarin (0.5 mg/L drinking water) and subjected to a single dose of ionizing radiation (16 Gy) followed by 250 μg of OX40 or PBS I.P. 1-day post-RT. Peripheral blood was collected 6 days after RT and evaluated by Flow Cytometry for SIY- pentamer+CD8+ T cells.

Results: Radiation therapy results in tumor control in BALB/c mice, but tumor cure in Mertk-/- BALB/c mice. Tumor cure in Mertk-/- BALB/c mice was abrogated by depletion of CD8 T cells indicating that ligation of Mertk in tumor macrophages suppresses endogenous anti-tumor immunity following radiation therapy. Similarly, warfarin-treated mice had higher rates of tumor cure following radiation that was also abrogated by CD8 depletion. In C57BL/6 mice, Mertk-/- alone does not affect responses to radiation therapy in the Panc02 tumor model, but the combination of radiation therapy with anti-OX40 costimulation of T cell responses resulted in a significant increase in peripheral blood SIY+ CD8 T cells 5 days after treatment, and significantly improved survival compared to radiation alone.

Conclusions: Mertk-/- mice, and Mertkwt mice treated with warfarin to inhibit Gas6 experience increased tumor control following ionizing radiation in an adaptive-immune mediated manner in CT26 tumor models. In less immunogenic tumors, loss of Mertk-/- permitted tumor cure following radiation therapy when combined with the T cell costimulatory molecule OX40. These data demonstrate that Mertk suppresses adaptive immunity in irradiated tumors. Mertk is an attractive therapeutic target in combination with ionizing radiation and immune therapy to promote adaptive immune anti-tumor responses.

Ethics Approval: All animal studies were approved by the Earl A. Chiles Research Institute IACUC, Assurance No. A3913-01.

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Clinical Institute





Earle A. Chiles Research Institute


Cancer, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, cancer immunity, adaptive immunity, T cells, Mertk




Poster presented at Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., November 7 – 11, 2018.

Mertk is a therapeutic target in combination with radiation to promote adaptive immune tumor responses

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