Therapy resistance and metastatic progression are primary causes of cancer-related mortality. Disseminated tumor cells possess adaptive traits that enable them to reprogram their metabolism, maintain stemness, and resist cell death, facilitating their persistence to drive recurrence. The survival of disseminated tumor cells also depends on their ability to modulate replication stress in response to therapy while colonizing inhospitable microenvironments. In this study, we discovered that the nuclear translocation of AXL, a TAM receptor tyrosine kinase, and its interaction with WRNIP1, a DNA replication stress response factor, promotes the survival of HER2+ breast cancer cells that are resistant to HER2-targeted therapy and metastasize to the brain. In preclinical models, knocking down or pharmacologically inhibiting AXL or WRNIP1 attenuated protection of stalled replication forks. Furthermore, deficiency or inhibition of AXL and WRNIP1 also prolonged metastatic latency and delayed relapse. Together, these findings suggest that targeting the replication stress response, which is a shared adaptive mechanism in therapy-resistant and metastasis-initiating cells, could reduce metachronous metastasis and enhance the response to standard-of-care therapies.


Nuclear AXL and WRNIP1 interact and mediate replication stress response, promote therapy resistance, and support metastatic progression, indicating that targeting the AXL/WRNIP1 axis is a potentially viable therapeutic strategy for breast cancer.

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