Researchers hope they can treat or prevent Alzheimer's by blocking β-secretase (BACE), the enzyme that kick-starts production of Aβ from amyloid precursor protein. It is commonly believed that the non-amyloidogenic α-secretase takes over processing of APP when BACE activity falls, limiting Aβ production. However, a study in the June 11 Journal of Neuroscience suggests it is not so simple. Scientists led by Randall Bateman, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, found that in rhesus monkeys, a BACE inhibitor blocked β-secretase as expected, but did not boost α-secretase processing of APP to the same degree. Rather, APP was processed in other ways. “The finding opens the door to the idea that APP metabolism may be more complex than simple α and β processing,” Bateman told Alzforum.
Previous evidence from cell models suggests that BACE inhibitors shunt APP toward processing by α-secretase (see Fukumoto et al., 2010). In a Phase 1 trial, Eli Lilly’s LY2811376 reportedly hiked the concentration of soluble APPα (sAPPα), the N-terminal fragment of the precursor cleaved by α-secretase (see May et al., 2011). However, other evidence suggests that the pathways compete neither in cell models nor in humans (see Kim et al., 2008; Dobrowolska et al., 2014). Bateman’s group aimed to find out how the two pathways interact by using their stable isotope labeling kinetics (SILK) method (see Jun 2006 news story). This distinguishes newly produced proteins from ones that are already present, and allows the researchers to get a sensitive read on dynamic changes in protein metabolism.
Bateman's group, including first author Justyna Dobrowolska, who is now at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, chose the rhesus monkey as a model because its APP shares 91 percent similarity with the human protein. The researchers first took baseline samples of the blood and cerebrospinal fluid of five monkeys, then gave them each four successive treatments, separated by a washout period. In random order, the monkeys received vehicle control and three doses of Merck’s BACE inhibitor MBI-5. An hour after treatment, the scientists gave the animals an infusion of 13C-labeled leucine, an amino acid that incorporates into new proteins. Every few hours for the next day, and then periodically over the following five, the researchers sampled CSF and blood again. They drew out sAPPα, sAPPβ, or Aβ by immunoprecipitation and analyzed what fraction incorporated the heavy leucine. ELISA measurements gave the absolute concentration of each protein in the CSF. By combining the two measures, the authors calculated and compared how much of each new peptide was made at the end of 57 hours.
As expected, the newly formed sAPPβ and Aβ fell in a dose-dependent manner. Compared with monkeys given vehicle control, the fraction of sAPPβ labelled with 13C-labeled leucine fell by 30 percent in those given the highest dose of MBI-5. The monkeys made 90 percent less Aβ and 83 percent less sAPPβ, according to the combined measurements of SILK and ELISA. While the researchers anticipated an opposite and equal rise in newly made sAPPα, they saw no change in the fraction of the peptide labelled with 13C-labeled leucine in the SILK test. Nevertheless, by taking their ELISA measurements into account, they calculated that newly made sAPPα rose by 35 percent compared with vehicle-treated controls. That suggested that as APP accumulated due to BACE inhibition, only some was shunted toward the α-secretase pathway. "The reasons for the differing magnitude of the effect of BACE inhibition on sAPPα levels detected by either ELISA or LC-MS are not understood," wrote co-author Mary Savage, Merck Research Laboratories, West Point, Pennsylvania (see full comment below).
What happened to the rest of the APP? Bateman suggested that α-secretase cleaves the protein at alternative sites (see Brinkmalm et al., 2013) to create fragments that neither ELISA nor SILK detect. How this might affect the monkeys is unclear. In vitro evidence suggests some alternative APP fragments could be toxic to neurons, said Bateman, but the clinical relevance of this is unknown. Extra APP could also undergo lysosomal degradation, the authors wrote.
Erik Portelius, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, was surprised by the results. “Previous clinical trials in humans suggest that BACE inhibitors have strong effects on sAPPα,” he said. “I would have expected that here as well.” Bateman pointed out that those measures come not from SILK but from ELISA. Portelius suggested that perhaps BACE inhibitors affect monkeys differently, or maybe this particular BACE inhibitor has distinct effects on the levels of sAPPα. MBI-5 is distinct from Merck’s BACE inhibitor MK-8931, currently in Phase 3 clinical trials. Nevertheless, Portelius found the drop in Aβ and sAPPβ encouraging, suggesting that BACE inhibition could be an effective means of lowering the production of Aβ in people.
Bateman said the next steps would be to apply these methods to people being treated with BACE inhibitors to see if similar changes occurred. He also suggested applying the SILK method to people with AD to see if their BACE function rises above controls, as some have hypothesized.—Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib
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