Cancer Discovery

AXL and Error-Prone DNA Replication Confer Drug Resistance and Offer Strategies to Treat EGFR-Mutant Lung Cancer

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Anticancer therapies have been limited by the emergence of mutations and other adaptations. In bacteria, antibiotics activate the SOS response, which mobilizes error-prone factors that allow for continuous replication at the cost of mutagenesis. We investigated whether the treatment of lung cancer with EGFR inhibitors (EGFRi) similarly engages hypermutators. In cycling drug-tolerant persister (DTP) cells and in EGFRi-treated patients presenting residual disease, we observed upregulation of GAS6, whereas ablation of GAS6’s receptor, AXL, eradicated resistance. Reciprocally, AXL overexpression enhanced DTP survival and accelerated the emergence of T790M, an EGFR mutation typical to resistant cells. Mechanistically, AXL induces low-fidelity DNA polymerases and activates their organizer, RAD18, by promoting neddylation. Metabolomics uncovered another hypermutator, AXL-driven activation of MYC, and increased purine synthesis that is unbalanced by pyrimidines. Aligning anti-AXL combination treatments with the transition from DTPs to resistant cells cured patient-derived xenografts. Hence, similar to bacteria, tumors tolerate therapy by engaging pharmacologically targetable endogenous mutators. SIGNIFICANCE: EGFR-mutant lung cancers treated with kinase inhibitors often evolve resistance due to secondary mutations. We report that in similarity to the bacterial SOS response stimulated by antibiotics, endogenous mutators are activated in drug-treated cells, and this heralds tolerance. Blocking the process prevented resistance in xenograft models, which offers new treatment strategies.