Alzheimer’s disease–where do we go from here?


New Alzheimer’s disease model, the CVN mouse

Our August 19, 2012 and our August 28, 2012 articles on this blog focused on the latest developments in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) drug development. To summarize the conclusions of the articles:

  • The results of a new genetic study by DeCode Genetics and its collaborators strongly support the amyloid hypothesis of AD, and especially the hypothesis that reducing the β-cleavage of APP [e.g., by use of an inhibitor of β-secretase (also known as the β-site APP cleaving enzyme 1, or BACE1)] may protect against the disease.
  • Nevertheless, in Phase 3 trials of two anti-amyloid monoclonal antibody (MAb) drugs in patients with mild to moderate AD–Pfizer/Janssen’s bapineuzumab (often called “bapi” for short) and Lilly’s solanezumab–the drugs failed their primary cognitive and functional endpoints.
  • Roche/Genentech, as well as two academic consortia, have begun clinical trials of anti-amyloid MAb drugs in asymptomatic patients with mutations that predispose them to develop AD, or in asymptomatic patients with amyloid accumulation. These studies are based on the hypothesis that the reason for the failure of anti-amyloid MAb drugs in clinical trials has been that the patients being treated had suffered extensive, irreversible brain damage. Treating patients at a much earlier stage of disease with these agents might therefore be expected to be more successful.

Analyses of the data from the Phase 3 studies of both bapi and solanezumab will be presented in scientific meetings in October 2012. An academic research consortium will present its independent analysis of the data from the EXPEDITION studies of solanezumab at the American Neurological Association (ANA) meeting in Boston on October 8, 2012, and at the Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease (CTAD) meeting in Monte Carlo, Monaco, on October 30, 2012.

According to a September 11, 2012 news article in Drug Discovery & Development, researchers who conducted the Phase 3 trials of bapi found evidence that the drug stabilized amyloid plaque in the brain and may have ameliorated further nerve damage in patients treated with the drug. This finding is among the results to be presented in the October meetings.

Development of BACE1 inhibitors

Strictly speaking, the results of the DeCode Genetics study most strongly support the development of BACE1 inhibitors. In our August 28, 2012 article, we link to a 2010 review that includes a discussion of companies developing BACE1 inhibitors. However, we also note that the development of BACE1 inhibitors has been elusive. This is because of medicinal chemistry considerations. Specifically, it has been difficult to design a specific, high-affinity inhibitor of the BACE1 active site that can cross the blood-brain barrier and which has good drug-like ADME (absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion) properties. Nevertheless, recently progress has been made in developing such compounds, and several companies are developing BACE1 inhibitors and have entered them into early-stage clinical trials.

Among the companies developing BACE1 inhibitors, as listed in a recent post on Derek Lowe’s In The Pipeline blog are CoMentis/Astellas, Merck, Lilly, and Takeda.

Satori Pharmaceuticals was developing γ-secretase inhibitors, but ran into safety problems

Developing γ-secretase inhibitors has been abandoned by the vast majority of companies, because of the essential role of these enzymes in the Notch pathway and other pathways involved in normal physiology. As a result, development of γ-secretase inhibitors for AD has not progressed beyond the preclinical stage.

Nevertheless, Satori Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge, MA venture capital-backed biotech company, had been actively involved in developing γ-secretase inhibitors. Satori’s γ-secretase inhibitors were based on a proprietary scaffold derived from a compound isolated from the black cohosh plant (Actaea racemosa). The company utilized modern synthetic and medicinal chemistry to derive compounds based on this scaffold that they believed was suitable for long-term oral therapy for AD in humans. Satori’s lead compound, SPI-1865, was a potent γ-secretase modulator that decreased levels of the amyloidogenic Aβ42 peptide as well as Aβ38, increased levels of Aβ37 and Aβ39, but did not affect Aβ40. Researchers believe that decreasing Aβ42 levels in favor of shorter, less amyloidgenic A-beta forms is beneficial in treatment of AD. SPI-1865 was also selective for Aβ42 lowering over the inhibition of Notch processing, and appeared to be free of any other off-target activities.

In animal models [e.g., wild type mice and rats, and transgenic mice (Tg2576) that overexpress APP and thus have high levels of Aβ peptides] orally-administered SPI-1865 has been found to lower brain Aβ42. SPI-1865 has good brain penetration in these models, and a long half-life that should permit once a day dosing in humans.

SPI-1865 was in the preclinical stage. Satori planned to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) Application with the FDA in late 2012 with the goal of enabling initial human testing to begin in the early part of 2013.

However, in late 2012, a study in monkeys showed that Satori’s lead compound–as well as its backup compounds–disrupted adrenal function. This adverse effect was completely unexpected, and unrelated to the gamma secretase target.  As of May 30, 2013, Satori closed its doors.

Meanwhile, other companies, including Envivo Pharmaceuticals (Watertown, MA), Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Eisai continue with their R&D efforts in gamma secretase modulators for treatment of AD.

A new mouse model for AD

As Derek Lowe says in an August 31, 2012 post on “In the Pipeline” with respect to Lilly’s AD drugs, anti-amyloid MAbs, BACE1 inhibitors, and γ-secretase inhibitors are “some of the best ideas that anyone has for Alzheimer’s therapy”. Given the APP processing pathway as illustrated in the figure at the top of our August 28, 2012 article, these are the “sensible” and “logical” alternatives.

Nevertheless, there is the nagging feeling among many AD researchers that we do not understand the causes of AD, especially sporadic AD, which represents around 95% of all cases of the disease. Sporadic AD occurs in aging individuals who have normal genes for the components of the APP processing pathway. Not only do we not understand the pathobiology of sporadic AD, but we have little understanding of the normal physiological function of APP and of APP processing. Processes that may be involved in the initiation of sporadic AD may include not only those involved in Aβ production, but also those involved in Aβ clearance.

An important tool in understanding the pathobiology of AD, and potentially in developing novel therapies for the disease, would be an animal model that recapitulates the human disease as closely as possible. We published an article on AD mouse models that were designed to more closely recapitulate human AD than the most commonly used models in the September 15, 2004 issue of Genetic Engineering News. However, since the publication of our article, Carol A Colton, Ph.D. (Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC) and her colleagues have published on their research aimed at producing an even better mouse model, known as the CVN mouse. They published their research in two articles, one in PNAS in 2006 and the other in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2008.

Charles River Laboratories (CRL) (Wilmington, MA) now offers the CVN mouse to researchers who might wish to employ it in their AD research.

Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) in humans, as well as various functional studies, have implicated variants in genes involved in inflammation and immune responses in susceptibility to late-onset, sporadic AD in humans. The Colton group, noting that commonly-used mouse models of AD recapitulated human disease very poorly, looked for differences between mice and humans in innate immunity. The biggest difference they found was that expression of nitric oxide synthase 2 (NOS2) the inducible form of nitric oxide synthase, is high in mice and low in humans. NOS2 is an enzyme that produces nitric oxide (NO), a highly reactive oxidant that can serve in signal transduction, neurotransmission and in cell killing by macrophages. Microglia, the macrophages of the brain, express NOS2 and NO. The Colton group has been studying the role of microglia and oxidants and antioxidants in microglia that can produce oxidative stress in the brain in normal aging and in AD.

Because of the striking difference in NOS2 expression between mice and humans, the Colton group created a transgenic mouse AD model by crossing mice that  expressed a mutant form of human APP known as APPSwDI (APP Swedish Dutch Iowa) with NOS2 knockout (NOS2 -/-) mice. The APPSwDI transgenic mouse, a well-characterized standard AD mouse model, was chosen because it expresses low levels of APP and high levels of Aβ peptides in the brain. The APPSwDI/NOS2 -/- mouse is the CVN mouse that is available from CRL.

Unlike APPSwDI mice and other standard AD mouse models, the CVN mouse recapitulates many features of human AD as the animals age, including AD-like amyloid pathology (starting at 6 weeks of age, which is early), perivascular deposition of amyloid, AD-like tau pathology (including aggregated hyperphosphoryated tau), AD-like neuronal loss, and reduction in interneuron numbers (including NPY interneurons). Age-related cognitive (learning and memory) loss (as assessed by the radial arm water maze test) was also seen. The researchers also saw increases in immune activation and inflammation (e.g., microglial activation) over the course of the disease; this appeared to be dependent on increases in Aβ and in tau.

The researchers also used the mouse to study changes in immune-related proteins over the course of the disease. Several protein that are encoded by genes that have been associated with sporadic AD via GWAS change over time in this mouse model, including APOE (which has been known to be important in AD for a long time) and BIN1. Other proteins that change over the course of disease include the complement component C1QB, and the centrosomal protein ninein. Immune activation genes such as those that encode IL-1α and TGF-β also show changes over the course of disease in these mice. The Colton group will soon publish their work on changes in these proteins and genes in the CVN mouse in a peer-reviewed journal.

In summary, the CVN mouse more faithfully models AD-like progression than other mouse models that have been used to study AD, including those that have been used in preclinical studies of such failed drug candidates as solanezumab, bapineuzumab, Flurizan (tarenflurbil), and Alzhemed (3-amino-1-propanesulfonic acid). It also allows researchers to study the role of genes and proteins such as those identified in GWAS studies in AD, and especially in sporadic AD. (However since the CVN mouse expresses a mutant form of APP, it can not be used to study all aspects of the pathophysiology of sporadic AD, especially the initiation of the disease process.) The CVN mouse can also be used in drug discovery and preclinical studies.

One example of such drug discovery studies is being carried out by the Colton group. They have recently been studying small APOE mimetic peptides in CVN mice. The subcutaneously administered APOE mimetics were reported to significantly improve behavior, while decreasing the inflammatory cytokine IL-6, as well as decreasing neurofibrillary tangle-like and amyloid plaque-like structures. These improvements are associated with apoE mimetic-mediated increases in protein phosphatase 2A (PP2A) activity. [Decreased PP2A levels in AD may be involved in formation of neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) which are aggregates of hyperphosphorylated tau; PP2A may also be involved in the production of Aβ peptides. The APOE mimetic are thus potential AD therapeutics.


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