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The AXL receptor tyrosine kinase is associated with adverse prognosis and distant metastasis in esophageal squamous cell carcinoma

Esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC) is a frequently recurrent deadly cancer for which no efficient targeted drug exists. AXL is an adverse prognostic factor in some cancers. Strong clinical evidence to support the prognostic role of AXL in ESCC is lacking. A total of 116 patients diagnosed with operable primary ESCC were enrolled. Both AXL and HER2 expression were detected by immunohistochemistry (IHC) in esophageal tissue and were correlated with the clinical outcome of patients. The efficacy of the AXL targeted drug foretinib was also evaluated in ESCC cells. Expression of AXL was found in about 80 % of ESCC tissue, and was significantly correlated with progression of tumor (P<0.001), increased risk of death (Hazard ratio HR [95 % CI=2.09[1.09-4.04], P=0.028], and distant metastasis (odds ratio OR [95 %CI]=3.96 (1.16-13.60), P=0.029). The adverse clinical impact of AXL was more evident when cumulatively expressed with HER2. In cell model, ESCC cells were more sensitive to AXL inhibitor foretinib than to the HER2 inhibitor lapatinib. Meanwhile, the AXL inhibitor foretinib showed a synergistic effect with HER2 inhibitors and the potential to overcome drug resistance to lapatinib. We thus concluded that AXL is a strong adverse prognostic factor for ESCC. Therapeutic agents targeting AXL have great potential to improve prognosis of ESCC patients.

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