Radiation, cisplatin, and cetuximab are clinical therapeutics used in the treatment of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Despite clinical success with these modalities, development of both intrinsic and acquired resistance is an emerging problem in the management of HNSCC. Thus, identifying and targeting molecules driving this drug resistance is essential for improving efficacy of treatment approaches.

Recent studies have identified a role for the TAM family of receptor tyrosine kinases (Tyro, Axl, and Mer) in tumor biology, especially the Axl receptor in promoting tumor growth and metastasis. Previously, we identified Axl as a logical molecular target in HNSCC and indicated that it may play a pivotal role in resistance to radiation, cisplatin, and cetuximab. In the current study, we advanced these early findings into pre-clinical models using patient-derived xenografts (PDXs). We have shown that small molecules targeting Axl can enhance therapy in PDXs that express high levels of Axl and have been identified as resistant to radiation, cisplatin, and cetuximab. Current studies are focusing on antibody-based targeting of Axl using PDXs and genetically-modified models of resistance. Furthermore, studies focused on co-targeting of Axl and Mer in vitro and in vivo have shown striking results and denote the importance of establishing logical approaches to target TAMs in the management of HNSCC.

Finally, investigations into the molecular mechanisms of how Axl signaling can lead to resistance have underscored the importance of tyrosine 821 (Y821) of Axl. Overexpression of Axl rendered cetuximab sensitive lines resistant, but cell lines overexpressing Axl-Y821F retained their sensitivity to cetuximab. Advancing this line of study in vivo indicated that tumors expressing Axl were resistant to cetuximab whereas tumors harboring the Y821 mutation were sensitive demonstrating that signals emanating from Y821 may be critical for cetuximab resistant pathways.

Collectively, the studies presented herein identify the TAM family of receptors as key players in radiation, cisplatin, and cetuximab resistance. These results provide rationale for the clinical targeting of TAM receptors to enhance the therapeutic modalities used in treating HNSCC.

Citation Format: Nellie K. Black, Mari Iida, Tamara S. Rodems, Toni M. Brand, Randall J. Kimple, Deric L. Wheeler. Targeting TAM family members with antibody or small molecule inhibitors enhances therapeutic modalities of HNSCC [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2017; 2017 Apr 1-5; Washington, DC. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2017;77(13 Suppl):Abstract nr 4176. doi:10.1158/1538-7445.AM2017-4176