Integrated analysis of multiple receptor tyrosine kinases identifies Axl as a therapeutic target and mediator of resistance to sorafenib in hepatocellular carcinoma


Aberrant activation of Axl is implicated in the progression of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). We explored the biologic significance and preclinical efficacy of Axl inhibition as a therapeutic strategy in sorafenib-naive and resistant HCC.


We evaluated Axl expression in sorafenib-naive and resistant (SR) clones of epithelial (HuH7) and mesenchymal origin (SKHep-1) using antibody arrays and confirmed tissue expression. We tested the effect of Axl inhibition with RNA-interference and pharmacologically with R428 on a number of phenotypic assays.


Axl mRNA overexpression in cell lines (n = 28) and RNA-seq tissue datasets (n = 373) correlated with epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT). Axl was overexpressed in HCC compared to cirrhosis and normal liver. We confirmed sorafenib resistance to be associated with EMT and enhanced motility in both HuH7-SR and SKHep-1-SR cells documenting a 4-fold increase in Axl phosphorylation as an adaptive feature of chronic sorafenib treatment in SKHep-1-SR cells. Axl inhibition reduced motility and enhanced sensitivity to sorafenib in SKHep-1SR cells. In patients treated with sorafenib (n = 40), circulating Axl levels correlated with shorter survival.


Suppression of Axl-dependent signalling influences the transformed phenotype in HCC cells and contributes to adaptive resistance to sorafenib, providing a pre-clinical rationale for the development of Axl inhibitors as a measure to overcome sorafenib resistance.

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S2841 Bemcentinib(R428) R428 (BGB324) is an inhibitor of Axl with IC50 of 14 nM, >100-fold selective for Axl versus Abl. Selectivty for Axl is also greater than Mer and Tyro3 (50-to-100- fold more selective) and InsR, EGFR, HER2, and PDGFRβ (100- fold more selective). (57) (7)

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