Archive for the ‘Neurodegenerative Diseases’ Category

Familial transthyretin amyloid polyneuropathy

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP



First-Ever Evidence that Patisiran Reduces Pathogenic, Misfolded TTR Monomers and Oligomers in FAP Patients

We reported data from our ongoing Phase 2 open-label extension (OLE) study of patisiran, an investigational RNAi therapeutic targeting transthyretin (TTR) for the treatment of TTR-mediated amyloidosis (ATTR amyloidosis) patients with familial amyloidotic polyneuropathy (FAP). Alnylam scientists and collaborators from The Scripps Research Institute and Misfolding Diagnostics, Inc. were able to measure the effects of patisiran on pathogenic, misfolded TTR monomers and oligomers in FAP patients. Results showed a rapid and sustained reduction in serum non-native conformations of TTR (NNTTR) of approximately 90%. Since NNTTR is pathogenic in ATTR amyloidosis and the level of NNTTR reduction correlated with total TTR knockdown, these results provide direct mechanistic evidence supporting the therapeutic hypothesis that TTR knockdown has the potential to result in clinical benefit. Furthermore, complete 12-month data from all 27 patients that enrolled in the patisiran Phase 2 OLE study showed sustained mean maximum reductions in total serum TTR of 91% for over 18 months and a mean 3.1-point decrease in mNIS+7 at 12 months, which compares favorably to an estimated increase in mNIS+7 of 13 to 18 points at 12 months based upon analysis of historical data sets in untreated FAP patients with similar baseline characteristics. Importantly, patisiran administration continues to be generally well tolerated out to 21 months of treatment.

Read our press release

View the non-native TTR poster (480 KB PDF)

View the complete 12-month patisiran Phase 2 OLE data presentation (620 KB PDF)

We are encouraged by these new data that provide continued support for our hypothesis that patisiran has the potential to halt neuropathy progression in patients with FAP. If these results are replicated in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, we believe that patisiran could emerge as an important treatment option for patients suffering from this debilitating, progressive and life-threatening disease.


Hereditary ATTR Amyloidosis with Polyneuropathy (hATTR-PN)

ATTR amyloidosis is a progressive, life-threatening disease caused by misfolded transthyretin (TTR) proteins that accumulate as amyloid fibrils in multiple organs, but primarily in the peripheral nerves and heart. ATTR amyloidosis can lead to significant morbidity, disability, and mortality. The TTR protein is produced primarily in the liver and is normally a carrier for retinol binding protein – one of the vehicles used to transport vitamin A around the body.  Mutations in the TTR gene cause misfolding of the protein and the formation of amyloid fibrils that typically contain both mutant and wild-type TTR that deposit in tissues such as the peripheral nerves and heart, resulting in intractable peripheral sensory neuropathy, autonomic neuropathy, and/or cardiomyopathy.

Click to Enlarge


ATTR represents a major unmet medical need with significant morbidity and mortality. There are over 100 reported TTR mutations; the particular TTR mutation and the site of amyloid deposition determine the clinical manifestations of the disease whether it is predominantly symptoms of neuropathy or cardiomyopathy.

Specifically, hereditary ATTR amyloidosis with polyneuropathy (hATTR-PN), also known as familial amyloidotic polyneuropathy (FAP), is an inherited, progressive disease leading to death within 5 to 15 years. It is due to a mutation in the transthyretin (TTR) gene, which causes misfolded TTR proteins to accumulate as amyloid fibrils predominantly in peripheral nerves and other organs. hATTR-PN can cause sensory, motor, and autonomic dysfunction, resulting in significant disability and death.

It is estimated that hATTR-PN, also known as FAP, affects approximately 10,000 people worldwide.  Patients have a life expectancy of 5 to 15 years from symptom onset, and the only treatment options for early stage disease are liver transplantation and TTR stabilizers such as tafamidis (approved in Europe) and diflunisal.  Unfortunately liver transplantation has limitations, including limited organ availability as well as substantial morbidity and mortality. Furthermore, transplantation eliminates the production of mutant TTR but does not affect wild-type TTR, which can further deposit after transplantation, leading to cardiomyopathy and worsening of neuropathy. There is a significant need for novel therapeutics to treat patients who have inherited mutations in the TTR gene.

Our ATTR program is the lead effort in our Genetic Medicine Strategic Therapeutic Area (STAr) product development and commercialization strategy, which is focused on advancing innovative RNAi therapeutics toward genetically defined targets for the treatment of rare diseases with high unmet medical need.  We are developing patisiran (ALN-TTR02), an intravenously administered RNAi therapeutic, to treat the hATTR-PN form of the disease.

Patisiran for the Treatment hATTR-PN

APOLLO Phase 3 Trial

In 2012, Alnylam entered into an exclusive alliance with Genzyme, a Sanofi company, to develop and commercialize RNAi therapeutics, including patisiran and revusiran, for the treatment of ATTR amyloidosis in Japan and the broader Asian-Pacific region. In early 2014, this relationship was extended as a significantly broader alliance to advance RNAi therapeutics as genetic medicines. Under this new agreement, Alnylam will lead development and commercialization of patisiran in North America and Europe while Genzyme will develop and commercialize the product in the rest of world.


Hereditary ATTR Amyloidosis with Cardiomyopathy (hATTR-CM)

ATTR amyloidosis is a progressive, life-threatening disease caused by misfolded transthyretin (TTR) proteins that accumulate as amyloid fibrils in multiple organs, but primarily in the peripheral nerves and heart. ATTR amyloidosis can lead to significant morbidity, disability, and mortality. The TTR protein is produced primarily in the liver and is normally a carrier for retinol binding protein – one of the vehicles used to transport vitamin A around the body.  Mutations in the TTR gene cause misfolding of the protein and the formation of amyloid fibrils that typically contain both mutant and wild-type TTR that deposit in tissues such as the peripheral nerves and heart, resulting in intractable peripheral sensory neuropathy, autonomic neuropathy, and/or cardiomyopathy.

Click to Enlarge                  

ATTR represents a major unmet medical need with significant morbidity and mortality. There are over 100 reported TTR mutations; the particular TTR mutation and the site of amyloid deposition determine the clinical manifestations of the disease, whether it is predominantly symptoms of neuropathy or cardiomyopathy.

Specifically, hereditary ATTR amyloidosis with cardiomyopathy (hATTR-CM), also known as familial amyloidotic cardiomyopathy (FAC), is an inherited, progressive disease leading to death within 2 to 5 years. It is due to a mutation in the transthyretin (TTR) gene, which causes misfolded TTR proteins to accumulate as amyloid fibrils primarily in the heart. Hereditary ATTR amyloidosis with cardiomyopathy can result in heart failure and death.

While the exact numbers are not known, it is estimated hATTR-CM, also known as FAC affects at least 40,000 people worldwide.  hATTR-CM is fatal within 2 to 5 years of diagnosis and treatment is currently limited to supportive care.  Wild-type ATTR amyloidosis (wtATTR amyloidosis), also known as senile systemic amyloidosis, is a nonhereditary, progressive disease leading to death within 2 to 5 years. It is caused by misfolded transthyretin (TTR) proteins that accumulate as amyloid fibrils in the heart. Wild-type ATTR amyloidosis can cause cardiomyopathy and result in heart failure and death. There are no approved therapies for the treatment of hATTR-CM or SSA; hence there is a significant unmet need for novel therapeutics to treat these patients.

Our ATTR program is the lead effort in our Genetic Medicine Strategic Therapeutic Area (STAr) product development and commercialization strategy, which is focused on advancing innovative RNAi therapeutics toward genetically defined targets for the treatment of rare diseases with high unmet medical need.  We are developing revusiran (ALN-TTRsc), a subcutaneously administered RNAi therapeutic for the treatment of hATTR-CM.

Revusiran for the Treatment of hATTR-CM

ENDEAVOUR Phase 3 Trial

In 2012, Alnylam entered into an exclusive alliance with Genzyme, a Sanofi company, to develop and commercialize RNAi therapeutics, including patisiran and revusiran, for the treatment of ATTR amyloidosis in Japan and the broader Asian-Pacific region. In early 2014, this relationship was extended as a broader alliance to advance RNAi therapeutics as genetic medicines. Under this new agreement, Alnylam and Genzyme have agreed to co-develop and co-commercialize revusiran in North America and Europe, with Genzyme developing and commercializing the product in the rest of world. This broadened relationship on revusiran is aimed at expanding and accelerating the product’s global value.

Pre-Clinical Data and Advancement of ALN-TTRsc02 for Transthyretin-Mediated Amyloidosis

We presented pre-clinical data with ALN-TTRsc02, an investigational RNAi therapeutic targeting transthyretin (TTR) for the treatment of TTR-mediated amyloidosis (ATTR amyloidosis).  In pre-clinical studies, including those in non-human primates (NHPs), ALN-TTRsc02 achieved potent and highly durable knockdown of serum TTR of up to 99% with multi-month durability achieved after just a single dose, supportive of a potentially once quarterly dose regimen. Results from studies comparing TTR knockdown activity of ALN-TTRsc02 to that of revusiran showed that ALN-TTRsc02 has a markedly superior TTR knockdown profile.  Further, in initial rat toxicology studies, ALN-TTRsc02 was found to be generally well tolerated with no significant adverse events at doses as high as 100 mg/kg.

Read our press release

View the presentation


Emerging Therapies for Transthyretin Cardiac Amyloidosis Could Herald a New Era for the Treatment of HFPEF

Oct 14, 2015   |  Adam Castano, MDDavid Narotsky, MDMathew S. Maurer, MD, FACC

Heart failure with a preserved ejection fraction (HFPEF) is a clinical syndrome that has no pharmacologic therapies approved for this use to date. In light of failed medicines, cardiologists have refocused treatment strategies based on the theory that HFPEF is a heterogeneous clinical syndrome with different etiologies. Classification of HFPEF according to etiologic subtype may, therefore, identify cohorts with treatable pathophysiologic mechanisms and may ultimately pave the way forward for developing meaningful HFPEF therapies.1

A wealth of data now indicates that amyloid infiltration is an important mechanism underlying HFPEF. Inherited mutations in transthyretin cardiac amyloidosis (ATTRm) or the aging process in wild-type disease (ATTRwt) cause destabilization of the transthyretin (TTR) protein into monomers or oligomers, which aggregate into amyloid fibrils. These insoluble fibrils accumulate in the myocardium and result in diastolic dysfunction, restrictive cardiomyopathy, and eventual congestive heart failure (Figure 1). In an autopsy study of HFPEF patients, almost 20% without antemortem suspicion of amyloid had left ventricular (LV) TTR amyloid deposition.2 Even more resounding evidence for the contribution of TTR amyloid to HFPEF was a study in which 120 hospitalized HFPEF patients with LV wall thickness ≥12 mm underwent technetium-99m 3,3-diphosphono-1,2-propranodicarboxylic acid (99mTc-DPD) cardiac imaging,3,4 a bone isotope known to have high sensitivity and specificity for diagnosing TTR cardiac amyloidosis.5,6 Moderate-to-severe myocardial uptake indicative of TTR cardiac amyloid deposition was detected in 13.3% of HFPEF patients who did not have TTR gene mutations. Therefore, TTR cardiac amyloid deposition, especially in older adults, is not rare, can be easily identified, and may contribute to the underlying pathophysiology of HFPEF.

Figure 1

As no U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs are currently available for the treatment of HFPEF or TTR cardiac amyloidosis, the development of medications that attenuate or prevent TTR-mediated organ toxicity has emerged as an important therapeutic goal. Over the past decade, a host of therapies and therapeutic drug classes have emerged in clinical trials (Table 1), and these may herald a new direction for treating HFPEF secondary to TTR amyloid.

Table 1

TTR Silencers (siRNA and Antisense Oligonucleotides)


Ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi) has surfaced as an endogenous cellular mechanism for controlling gene expression. Small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) delivered into cells can disrupt the production of target proteins.7,8 A formulation of lipid nanoparticle and triantennary N-acetylgalactosamine (GalNAc) conjugate that delivers siRNAs to hepatocytes is currently in clinical trials.9 Prior research demonstrated these GalNAc-siRNA conjugates result in robust and durable knockdown of a variety of hepatocyte targets across multiple species and appear to be well suited for suppression of TTR gene expression and subsequent TTR protein production.

The TTR siRNA conjugated to GalNAc, ALN-TTRSc, is now under active investigation as a subcutaneous injection in phase 3 clinical trials in patients with TTR cardiac amyloidosis.10 Prior phase 2 results demonstrated that ALN-TTRSc was generally well tolerated in patients with significant TTR disease burden and that it reduced both wild-type and mutant TTR gene expression by a mean of 87%. Harnessing RNAi technology appears to hold great promise for treating patients with TTR cardiac amyloidosis. The ability of ALN-TTRSc to lower both wild-type and mutant proteins may provide a major advantage over liver transplantation, which affects the production of only mutant protein and is further limited by donor shortage, cost, and need for immunosuppression.

Antisense Oligonucleotides

Antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) are under clinical investigation for their ability to inhibit hepatic expression of amyloidogenic TTR protein. Currently, the ASO compound, ISIS-TTRRx, is under investigation in a phase 3 multicenter, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial in patients with familial amyloid polyneuropathy (FAP).11 The primary objective is to evaluate its efficacy as measured by change in neuropathy from baseline relative to placebo. Secondary measures will evaluate quality of life (QOL), modified body mass index (mBMI) by albumin, and pharmacodynamic effects on retinol binding protein. Exploratory objectives in a subset of patients with LV wall thickness ≥13 mm without a history of persistent hypertension will examine echocardiographic parameters, N-terminal pro–B-type natriuretic peptide (NT-proBNP), and polyneuropathy disability score relative to placebo. These data will facilitate analysis of the effect of antisense oligonucleotide-mediated TTR suppression on the TTR cardiac phenotype with a phase 3 trial anticipated to begin enrollment in 2016.

TTR Stabilizers (Diflunisal, Tafamidis)


Several TTR-stabilizing agents are in various stages of clinical trials. Diflunisal, a traditionally used and generically available nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), binds and stabilizes familial TTR variants against acid-mediated fibril formation in vitro and is now in human clinical trials.12,13 The use of diflunisal in patients with TTR cardiac amyloidosis is controversial given complication of chronic inhibition of cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes, including gastrointestinal bleeding, renal dysfunction, fluid retention, and hypertension that may precipitate or exacerbate heart failure in vulnerable individuals.14-17 In TTR cardiac amyloidosis, an open-label cohort study suggested that low-dose diflunisal with careful monitoring along with a prophylactic proton pump inhibitor could be safely administered to compensated patients.18 An association was observed, however, between chronic diflunisal use and adverse changes in renal function suggesting that advanced kidney disease may be prohibitive in diflunisal therapy.In FAP patients with peripheral or autonomic neuropathy randomized to diflunisal or placebo, diflunisal slowed progression of neurologic impairment and preserved QOL over two years of follow-up.19 Echocardiography demonstrated cardiac involvement in approximately 50% of patients.20 Longer-term safety and efficacy data over an average 38 ± 31 months in 40 Japanese patients with hereditary ATTR amyloidosis who were not candidates for liver transplantation showed that diflunisal was mostly well tolerated.12 The authors cautioned the need for attentive monitoring of renal function and blood cell counts. Larger multicenter collaborations are needed to determine diflunisal’s true efficacy in HFPEF patients with TTR cardiac amyloidosis.


Tafamidis is under active investigation as a novel compound that binds to the thyroxine-binding sites of the TTR tetramer, inhibiting its dissociation into monomers and blocking the rate-limiting step in the TTR amyloidogenesis cascade.21 The TTR compound was shown in an 18-month double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to slow progression of neurologic symptoms in patients with early-stage ATTRm due to the V30M mutation.22 When focusing on cardiomyopathy in a phase 2, open-label trial, tafamidis also appeared to effectively stabilize TTR tetramers in non-V30M variants, wild-type and V122I, as well as biochemical and echocardiographic parameters.23,24 Preliminary data suggests that clinically stabilized patients had shorter disease duration, lower cardiac biomarkers, less myocardial thickening, and higher EF than those who were not stabilized, suggesting early institution of therapy may be beneficial. A phase 3 trial has completed enrollment and will evaluate the efficacy, safety, and tolerability of tafamidis 20 or 80 mg orally vs. placebo.25 This will contribute to long-term safety and efficacy data needed to determine the therapeutic effects of tafamidis among ATTRm variants.

Amyloid Degraders (Doxycycline/TUDCA and Anti-SAP Antibodies)


While silencer and stabilizer drugs are aimed at lowering amyloidogenic precursor protein production, they cannot remove already deposited fibrils in an infiltrated heart. Removal of already deposited fibrils by amyloid degraders would be an important therapeutic strategy, particularly in older adults with heavily infiltrated hearts reflected by thick walls, HFPEF, systolic heart failure, and restrictive cardiomyopathy. Combined doxycycline and tauroursodeoxycholic acid (TUDCA) disrupt TTR amyloid fibrils and appeared to have an acceptable safety profile in a small phase 2 open-label study among 20 TTR patients. No serious adverse reactions or clinical progression of cardiac or neuropathic involvement was observed over one year.26 An active phase 2, single-center, open-label, 12-month study will assess primary outcome measures including mBMI, neurologic impairment score, and NT-proBNP.27 Another phase 2 study is examining the tolerability and efficacy of doxycycline/TUDCA over an 18-month period in patients with TTR amyloid cardiomyopathy.28 Additionally, a study in patients with TTR amyloidosis is ongoing to determine the effect of doxycycline alone on neurologic function, cardiac biomarkers, echocardiographic parameters, modified body mass index, and autonomic neuropathy.29

Anti-SAP Antibodies

In order to safely clear established amyloid deposits, the role of the normal, nonfibrillar plasma glycoprotein present in all human amyloid deposits, serum amyloid P component (SAP), needs to be more clearly understood.30 In mice with amyloid AA type deposits, administration of antihuman SAP antibody triggered a potent giant cell reaction that removed massive visceral amyloid deposits without adverse effects.31 In humans with TTR cardiac amyloidosis, anti-SAP antibody treatments could be feasible because the bis-D proline compound, CPHPC, is capable of clearing circulating human SAP, which allow anti-SAP antibodies to reach residual deposited SAP. In a small, open-label, single-dose-escalation, phase 1 trial involving 15 patients with systemic amyloidosis, none of whom had clinical evidence of cardiac amyloidosis, were treated with CPHPC followed by human monoclonal IgG1 anti-SAP antibody.32 No serious adverse events were reported and amyloid deposits were cleared from the liver, kidney, and lymph node. Anti-SAP antibodies hold promise as a potential amyloid therapy because of their potential to target all forms of amyloid deposits across multiple tissue types.

Mutant or wild-type TTR cardiac amyloidoses are increasingly recognized as a cause of HFPEF. Clinicians need to be aware of this important HFPEF etiology because the diverse array of emerging disease-modifying agents for TTR cardiac amyloidosis in human clinical trials has the potential to herald a new era for the treatment of HFPEF.


  1. Maurer MS, Mancini D. HFpEF: is splitting into distinct phenotypes by comorbidities the pathway forward? J Am Coll Cardiol 2014;64:550-2.
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  10. U.S. National Institutes of Health. Phase 2 Study to Evaluate ALN-TTRSC in Patients With Transthyretin (TTR) Cardiac Amyloidosis ( website). 2014. Available at: Accessed 8/19/2015.
  11. U.S. National Institutes of Health. Efficacy and Safety of ISIS-TTRRx in Familial Amyloid Polyneuropathy (Clinical Website. 2013. Available at: Accessed 8/19/2015.
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The Acid-Mediated Denaturation Pathway of Transthyretin Yields a Conformational Intermediate That Can Self-Assemble into Amyloid

Zhihong Lai , Wilfredo Colón , and Jeffery W. Kelly *
Department of Chemistry, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843-3255
Biochemistry199635 (20), pp 6470–6482
Publication Date (Web): May 21, 1996  Copyright © 1996 American Chemical Society

Transthyretin (TTR) amyloid fibril formation is observed during partial acid denaturation and while refolding acid-denatured TTR, implying that amyloid fibril formation results from the self-assembly of a conformational intermediate. The acid denaturation pathway of TTR has been studied in detail herein employing a variety of biophysical methods to characterize the intermediate(s) capable of amyloid fibril formation. At physiological concentrations, tetrameric TTR remains associated from pH 7 to pH 5 and is incapable of amyloid fibril formation. Tetrameric TTR dissociates to a monomer in a process that is dependent on both pH and protein concentration below pH 5. The extent of amyloid fibril formation correlates with the concentration of the TTR monomer having an altered, but defined, tertiary structure over the pH range of 5.0−3.9. The inherent Trp fluorescence-monitored denaturation curve of TTR exhibits a plateau over the pH range where amyloid fibril formation is observed (albeit at a higher concentration), implying that a steady-state concentration of the amyloidogenic intermediate with an altered tertiary structure is being detected. Interestingly, 1-anilino-8-naphthalenesulfonate fluorescence is at a minimum at the pH associated with maximal amyloid fibril formation (pH 4.4), implying that the amyloidogenic intermediate does not have a high extent of hydrophobic surface area exposed, consistent with a defined tertiary structure. Transthyretin has two Trp residues in its primary structure, Trp-41 and Trp-79, which are conveniently located far apart in the tertiary structure of TTR. Replacement of each Trp with Phe affords two single Trp containing variants which were used to probe local pH-dependent tertiary structural changes proximal to these chromophores. The pH-dependent fluorescence behavior of the Trp-79-Phe mutant strongly suggests that Trp-41 is located near the site of the tertiary structural rearrangement that occurs in the formation of the monomeric amyloidogenic intermediate, likely involving the C-strand−loop−D-strand region. Upon further acidification of TTR (below pH 4.4), the structurally defined monomeric amyloidogenic intermediate begins to adopt alternative conformations that are not amyloidogenic, ultimately forming an A-state conformation below pH 3 which is also not amyloidogenic. In summary, analytical equilibrium ultracentrifugation, SDS−PAGE, far- and near-UV CD, fluorescence, and light scattering studies suggest that the amyloidogenic intermediate is a monomeric predominantly β-sheet structure having a well-defined tertiary structure.


Prevention of Transthyretin Amyloid Disease by Changing Protein Misfolding Energetics

Per Hammarström*, R. Luke Wiseman*, Evan T. Powers, Jeffery W. Kelly   + Author Affiliations

Science  31 Jan 2003; 299(5607):713-716

Genetic evidence suggests that inhibition of amyloid fibril formation by small molecules should be effective against amyloid diseases. Known amyloid inhibitors appear to function by shifting the aggregation equilibrium away from the amyloid state. Here, we describe a series of transthyretin amyloidosis inhibitors that functioned by increasing the kinetic barrier associated with misfolding, preventing amyloidogenesis by stabilizing the native state. The trans-suppressor mutation, threonine 119 → methionine 119, which is known to ameliorate familial amyloid disease, also functioned through kinetic stabilization, implying that this small-molecule strategy should be effective in treating amyloid diseases.


Rational design of potent human transthyretin amyloid disease inhibitors

Thomas Klabunde1,2, H. Michael Petrassi3, Vibha B. Oza3, Prakash Raman3, Jeffery W. Kelly3 & James C. Sacchettini1

Nature Structural & Molecular Biology 2000; 7: 312 – 321.      

The human amyloid disorders, familial amyloid polyneuropathy, familial amyloid cardiomyopathy and senile systemic amyloidosis, are caused by insoluble transthyretin (TTR) fibrils, which deposit in the peripheral nerves and heart tissue. Several nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and structurally similar compounds have been found to strongly inhibit the formation of TTR amyloid fibrils in vitro. These include flufenamic acid, diclofenac, flurbiprofen, and resveratrol. Crystal structures of the protein–drug complexes have been determined to allow detailed analyses of the protein–drug interactions that stabilize the native tetrameric conformation of TTR and inhibit the formation of amyloidogenic TTR. Using a structure-based drug design approach ortho-trifluormethylphenyl anthranilic acid and N-(meta-trifluoromethylphenyl) phenoxazine 4,6-dicarboxylic acid have been discovered to be very potent and specific TTR fibril formation inhibitors. This research provides a rationale for a chemotherapeutic approach for the treatment of TTR-associated amyloid diseases.


First European consensus for diagnosis, management, and treatment of transthyretin familial amyloid polyneuropathy

Adams, Davida; Suhr, Ole B.b; Hund, Ernstc; Obici, Laurad; Tournev, Ivailoe,f; Campistol, Josep M.g; Slama, Michel S.h; Hazenberg, Bouke P.i; Coelho, Teresaj; from the European Network for TTR-FAP (ATTReuNET)

Current Opin Neurol: Feb 2016; 29 – Issue – p S14–S26

Purpose of review: Early and accurate diagnosis of transthyretin familial amyloid polyneuropathy (TTR-FAP) represents one of the major challenges faced by physicians when caring for patients with idiopathic progressive neuropathy. There is little consensus in diagnostic and management approaches across Europe.

Recent findings: The low prevalence of TTR-FAP across Europe and the high variation in both genotype and phenotypic expression of the disease means that recognizing symptoms can be difficult outside of a specialized diagnostic environment. The resulting delay in diagnosis and the possibility of misdiagnosis can misguide clinical decision-making and negatively impact subsequent treatment approaches and outcomes.

Summary: This review summarizes the findings from two meetings of the European Network for TTR-FAP (ATTReuNET). This is an emerging group comprising representatives from 10 European countries with expertise in the diagnosis and management of TTR-FAP, including nine National Reference Centres. The current review presents management strategies and a consensus on the gold standard for diagnosis of TTR-FAP as well as a structured approach to ongoing multidisciplinary care for the patient. Greater communication, not just between members of an individual patient’s treatment team, but also between regional and national centres of expertise, is the key to the effective management of TTR-FAP.

Transthyretin familial amyloid polyneuropathy (TTR-FAP) is a highly debilitating and irreversible neurological disorder presenting symptoms of progressive sensorimotor and autonomic neuropathy [1▪,2▪,3]. TTR-FAP is caused by misfolding of the transthyretin (TTR) protein leading to protein aggregation and the formation of amyloid fibrils and, ultimately, to amyloidosis (commonly in the peripheral and autonomic nervous system and the heart) [4,5]. TTR-FAP usually proves fatal within 7–12 years from the onset of symptoms, most often due to cardiac dysfunction, infection, or cachexia [6,7▪▪].

The prevalence and disease presentation of TTR-FAP vary widely within Europe. In endemic regions (northern Portugal, Sweden, Cyprus, and Majorca), patients tend to present with a distinct genotype in large concentrations, predominantly a Val30Met substitution in the TTR gene [8–10]. In other areas of Europe, the genetic footprint of TTR-FAP is more varied, with less typical phenotypic expression [6,11]. For these sporadic or scattered cases, a lack of awareness among physicians of variable clinical features and limited access to diagnostic tools (i.e., pathological studies and genetic screening) can contribute to high rates of misdiagnosis and poorer patient outcomes [1▪,11]. In general, early and late-onset variants of TTR-FAP, found within endemic and nonendemic regions, present several additional diagnostic challenges [11,12,13▪,14].

Delay in the time to diagnosis is a major obstacle to the optimal management of TTR-FAP. With the exception of those with a clearly diagnosed familial history of FAP, patients still invariably wait several years between the emergence of first clinical signs and accurate diagnosis [6,11,14]. The timely initiation of appropriate treatment is particularly pertinent, given the rapidity and irreversibility with which TTR-FAP can progress if left unchecked, as well as the limited effectiveness of available treatments during the later stages of the disease [14]. This review aims to consolidate the existing literature and present an update of the best practices in the management of TTR-FAP in Europe. A summary of the methods used to achieve a TTR-FAP diagnosis is presented, as well as a review of available treatments and recommendations for treatment according to disease status.

Patients with TTR-FAP can present with a range of symptoms [11], and care should be taken to acquire a thorough clinical history of the patient as well as a family history of genetic disease. Delay in diagnosis is most pronounced in areas where TTR-FAP is not endemic or when there is no positive family history [1▪]. TTR-FAP and TTR-familial amyloid cardiomyopathy (TTR-FAC) are the two prototypic clinical disease manifestations of a broader disease spectrum caused by an underlying hereditary ATTR amyloidosis [19]. In TTR-FAP, the disease manifestation of neuropathy is most prominent and definitive for diagnosis, whereas cardiomyopathy often suggests TTR-FAC. However, this distinction is often superficial because cardiomyopathy, autonomic neuropathy, vitreous opacities, kidney disease, and meningeal involvement all may be present with varying severity for each patient with TTR-FAP.

Among early onset TTR-FAP with usually positive family history, symptoms of polyneuropathy present early in the disease process and usually predominate throughout the progression of the disease, making neurological testing an important diagnostic aid [14]. Careful clinical examination (e.g., electromyography with nerve conduction studies and sympathetic skin response, quantitative sensation test, quantitative autonomic test) can be used to detect, characterize, and scale the severity of neuropathic abnormalities involving small and large nerve fibres [10]. Although a patient cannot be diagnosed definitively with TTR-FAP on the basis of clinical presentation alone, symptoms suggesting the early signs of peripheral neuropathy, autonomic dysfunction, and cardiac conduction disorders or infiltrative cardiomyopathy are all indicators that further TTR-FAP diagnostic investigation is warranted. Late-onset TTR-FAP often presents as sporadic cases with distinct clinical features (e.g., milder autonomic dysfunction) and can be more difficult to diagnose than early-onset TTR-FAP (Table 2) [1▪,11,12,13▪,14,20].

Genetic testing is carried out to allow detection of specific amyloidogenic TTR mutations (Table 1), using varied techniques depending on the expertise and facilities available in each country (Table S2, A targeted approach to detect a specific mutation can be used for cases belonging to families with previous diagnosis. In index cases of either endemic and nonendemic regions that do not have a family history of disease, are difficult to confirm, and have atypical symptoms, TTR gene sequencing is required for the detection of both predicted and new amyloidogenic mutations [26,27].

Following diagnosis, the neuropathy stage and systemic extension of the disease should be determined in order to guide the next course of treatment (Table 4) [3,30,31]. The three stages of TTR-FAP severity are graded according to a patient’s walking disability and degree of assistance required [30]. Systemic assessment, especially of the heart, eyes, and kidney, is also essential to ensure all aspects of potential impact of the disease can be detected [10].

Table 4

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The goals of cardiac investigations are to detect serious conduction disorders with the risk of sudden death and infiltrative cardiomyopathy. Electrocardiograms (ECG), Holter-ECG, and intracardiac electrophysiology study are helpful to detect conduction disorders. Echocardiograms, cardiac magnetic resonance imaging, scintigraphy with bone tracers, and biomarkers (e.g., brain natriuretic peptide, troponin) can all help to diagnose infiltrative cardiomyopathy[10]. An early detection of cardiac abnormalities has obvious benefits to the patient, given that the prophylactic implantation of pacemakers was found to prevent 25% of major cardiac events in TTR-FAP patients followed up over an average of 4 years [32▪▪]. Assessment of cardiac denervation with 123-iodine meta-iodobenzylguanidine is a powerful prognostic marker in patients diagnosed with FAP [33].



Tafamidis is a first-in-class therapy that slows the progression of TTR amyloidogenesis by stabilizing the mutant TTR tetramer, thereby preventing its dissociation into monomers and amyloidogenic and toxic intermediates [55,56]. Tafamidis is currently indicated in Europe for the treatment of TTR amyloidosis in adult patients with stage I symptomatic polyneuropathy to delay peripheral neurological impairment [57].

In an 18-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of patients with early-onset Val30Met TTR-FAP, tafamidis was associated with a 52% lower reduction in neurological deterioration (P = 0.027), a preservation of nerve function, and TTR stabilization versus placebo [58▪▪]. However, only numerical differences were found for the coprimary endpoints of neuropathy impairment [neuropathy impairment score in the lower limb (NIS-LL) responder rates of 45.3% tafamidis vs 29.5% placebo; P = 0.068] and quality of life scores [58▪▪]. A 12-month, open-label extension study showed that the reduced rates of neurological deterioration associated with tafamidis were sustained over 30 months, with earlier initiation of tafamidis linking to better patient outcomes (P = 0.0435) [59▪]. The disease-slowing effects of tafamidis may be dependent on the early initiation of treatment. In an open-label study with Val30Met TTR-FAP patients with late-onset and advanced disease (NIS-LL score >10, mean age 56.4 years), NIS-LL and disability scores showed disease progression despite 12 months of treatment with tafamidis, marked by a worsening of neuropathy stage in 20% and the onset of orthostatic hypotension in 22% of patients at follow-up [60▪].

Tafamidis is not only effective in patients exhibiting the Val30Met mutation; it also has proven efficacy, in terms of TTR stabilization, in non-Val30Met patients over 12 months [61]. Although tafamidis has demonstrated safe use in patients with TTR-FAP, care should be exercised when prescribing to those with existing digestive problems (e.g., diarrhoea, faecal incontinence) [60▪].

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Diflunisal is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that, similar to tafamidis, slows the rate of amyloidogenesis by preventing the dissociation, misfolding, and misassembly of the mutated TTR tetramer [62,63]. Off-label use has been reported for patients with stage I and II disease, although diflunisal is not currently licensed for the treatment of TTR-FAP.

Evidence for the clinical effectiveness of diflunisal in TTR-FAP derives from a placebo-controlled, double-blind, 24-month study in 130 patients with clinically detectable peripheral or autonomic neuropathy[64▪]. The deterioration in NIS scores was significantly more pronounced in patients receiving placebo compared with those taking diflunisal (P = 0.001), and physical quality of life measures showed significant improvement among diflunisal-treated patients (P = 0.001). Notable during this study was the high rate of attrition in the placebo group, with 50% more placebo-treated patients dropping out of this 2-year study as a result of disease progression, advanced stage of the disease, and varied mutations.

One retrospective analysis of off-label use of diflunisal in patients with TTR-FAP reported treatment discontinuation in 57% of patients because of adverse events that were largely gastrointestinal [65]. Conclusions on the safety of diflunisal in TTR-FAP will depend on further investigations on the impact of known cardiovascular and renal side-effects associated with the NSAID drug class [66,67].






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New Studies toward Understanding Alzheimer Disease

Curators: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP and Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN


There is no unifying concept of Alzheimer Disease beyond the Tau and beta amyloid roles.  Recently, Ingenbleek and Bernstein (journal AD) made the connection between the age related decline of liver synthesis of plasma transthyretin and the more dramatic decline of transthyretin at the blood brain barrier, and the relationship to inability to transfer vitamin A via retinol binding protein to the brain.  Related metabolic events are reported by several groups.


What else is New?


Amyloid-β peptide protects against microbial infection in mouse and worm models of Alzheimer’s disease.

Kumar DK, Choi SH, Washicosky KJ, Eimer WA, Tucker S, Ghofrani J, Lefkowitz A, McColl G, Goldstein LE, Tanzi RE, Moir RD.

Sci Transl Med. 2016 May 25;8(340):340ra72.

They show that Aβ oligomerization, a behavior traditionally viewed as intrinsically pathological, may be necessary for the antimicrobial activities of the peptide. Collectively, our data are consistent with a model in which soluble Aβ oligomers first bind to microbial cell wall carbohydrates via a heparin-binding domain. Developing protofibrils inhibited pathogen adhesion to host cells. Propagating β-amyloid fibrils mediate agglutination and eventual entrapment of unatttached microbes….Salmonella Typhimurium bacterial infection of the brains of transgenic 5XFAD mice resulted in rapid seeding and accelerated β-amyloid deposition, which closely colocalized with the invading bacteria.

This is quite interesting in that infection drives the production of acute phase reactants resulting in decreased production of transthyretin.  Whether this also has ties to chronic disease in the elderly and risk of AD is not known.

Gain-of-function mutations in protein kinase Cα (PKCα) may promote synaptic defects in Alzheimer’s disease.

Alfonso SI, Callender JA, Hooli B, Antal CE, Mullin K, Sherman MA, Lesné SE, Leitges M, Newton AC, Tanzi RE, Malinow R.

Sci Signal. 2016 May 10;9(427):ra47.

Through whole-genome sequencing of 1345 individuals from 410 families with late-onset AD (LOAD), they identified three highly penetrant variants in PRKCA, the gene that encodes protein kinase Cα (PKCα), in five of the families. All three variants linked with LOAD displayed increased catalytic activity relative to wild-type PKCα as assessed in live-cell imaging experiments using a genetically encoded PKC activity reporter. Deleting PRKCA in mice or adding PKC antagonists to mouse hippocampal slices infected with a virus expressing the Aβ precursor CT100 revealed that PKCα was required for the reduced synaptic activity caused by Aβ. In PRKCA(-/-) neurons expressing CT100, introduction of PKCα, but not PKCα lacking a PDZ interaction moiety, rescued synaptic depression, suggesting that a scaffolding interaction bringing PKCα to the synapse is required for its mediation of the effects of Aβ. Thus, enhanced PKCα activity may contribute to AD, possibly by mediating the actions of Aβ on synapses.


Science Signaling Podcast for 10 May 2016: PKCα in Alzheimer’s disease.

Newton AC, Tanzi RE, VanHook AM.

Sci Signal. 2016 May 10;9(427):pc11. doi: 10.1126/scisignal.aaf9436.

Relevance of the COPI complex for Alzheimer’s disease progression in vivo.

Bettayeb K, Hooli BV, Parrado AR, Randolph L, Varotsis D, Aryal S, Gresack J,Tanzi RE, Greengard P, Flajolet M.

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 May 10;113(19):5418-23.

Inhibition of death-associated protein kinase 1 attenuates the phosphorylation and amyloidogenic processing of amyloid precursor protein.

Kim BM, You MH, Chen CH, Suh J, Tanzi RE, Ho Lee T.

Hum Mol Genet. 2016 Apr 19. pii: ddw114.

Extracellular deposition of amyloid-beta (Aβ) peptide, a metabolite of sequential cleavage of amyloid precursor protein (APP), is a critical step in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). While death-associated protein kinase 1 (DAPK1) is highly expressed in AD brains and its genetic variants are linked to AD risk, little is known about the impact of DAPK1 on APP metabolism and Aβ generation. This study demonstrated a novel effect of DAPK1 in the regulation of APP processing using cell culture and mouse models. DAPK1, but not its kinase deficient mutant (K42A), significantly increased human Aβ secretion in neuronal cell culture models. Moreover, knockdown of DAPK1 expression or inhibition of DAPK1 catalytic activity significantly decreased Aβ secretion. Furthermore, DAPK1, but not K42A, triggered Thr668 phosphorylation of APP, which may initiate and facilitate amyloidogenic APP processing leading to the generation of Aβ. In Tg2576 APPswe-overexpressing mice, knockout of DAPK1 shifted APP processing toward non-amyloidogenic pathway and decreased Aβ generation. Finally, in AD brains, elevated DAPK1 levels showed co-relation with the increase of APP phosphorylation. Combined together, these results suggest that DAPK1 promotes the phosphorylation and amyloidogenic processing of APP, and that may serve a potential therapeutic target for AD.

Recapitulating amyloid β and tau pathology in human neural cell culture models: clinical implications.

Choi SH, Kim YH, D’Avanzo C, Aronson J, Tanzi RE, Kim DY.

US Neurol. 2015 Fall;11(2):102-105.    Free PMC Article

The “amyloid β hypothesis” of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) has been the reigning hypothesis explaining pathogenic mechanisms of AD over the last two decades. However, this hypothesis has not been fully validated in animal models, and several major unresolved issues remain. Our 3D human neural cell culture model system provides a premise for a new generation of cellular AD models that can serve as a novel platform for studying pathogenic mechanisms and for high-throughput drug screening in a human brain-like environment.

The two key pathological hallmarks of AD are senile plaques (amyloid plaques) and neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs), which develop in brain regions responsible for memory and cognitive functions (i.e. cerebral cortex and limbic system) 3. Senile plaques are extracellular deposits of amyloid-β (Aβ) peptides, while NFTs are intracellular, filamentous aggregates of hyperphosphorylated tau protein 4.

The identification of Aβ as the main component of senile plaques by Drs. Glenner and Wong in 1984 5 resulted in the original formation of the “amyloid hypothesis.” According to this hypothesis, which was later renamed the “amyloid-β cascade hypothesis” by Drs. Hardy and Higgins 6, the accumulation of Aβ is the initial pathological trigger in the disease, subsequently leading to hyperphosphorylation of tau, causing NFTs, and ultimately, neuronal death and dementia 4,710. Although the details have been modified to reflect new findings, the core elements of this hypothesis remain unchanged: excess accumulation of the pathogenic forms of Aβ, by altered Aβ production and/or clearance, triggers the vicious pathogenic cascades that eventually lead to NFTs and neuronal death.

Over the last two decades, the Aβ hypothesis of AD has reigned, providing the foundation for numerous basic studies and clinical trials 4,7,10,11. According to this hypothesis, the accumulation of Aβ, either by altered Aβ production and/or clearance, is the initial pathological trigger in the disease. The excess accumulation of Aβ then elicits a pathogenic cascade including synaptic deficits, altered neuronal activity, inflammation, oxidative stress, neuronal injury, hyperphosphorylation of tau causing NFTs and ultimately, neuronal death and dementia 4,710.

One of the major unresolved issues of the Aβ hypothesis is to show a direct causal link between Aβ and NFTs 1214. Studies have demonstrated that treatments with various forms of soluble Aβ oligomers induced synaptic deficits and neuronal injury, as well as hyperphosphorylation of tau proteins, in mouse and rat neurons, which could lead to NFTs and neurodegeneration in vivo 1821. However, transgenic AD mouse models carrying single or multiple human familial AD (FAD) mutations in amyloid precursor protein (APP) and/or presenilin 1 (PS1) do not develop NFTs or robust neurodegeneration as observed in human patients, despite robust Aβ deposition 13,22,23. Double and triple transgenic mouse models, harboring both FAD and tau mutations linked with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), are the only rodent models to date displaying both amyloid plaques and NFTs. However, the NFT pathology in these models stems mainly from the overexpression of human tau as a result of the FTD, rather than the FAD mutations24,25.

Human neurons carrying FAD mutations are an optimal model to test whether elevated levels of pathogenic Aβ trigger pathogenic cascades including NFTs, since those cells truly share the same genetic background that induces FAD in humans. Indeed, Israel et al., observed elevated tau phosphorylation in neurons with an APP duplication FAD mutation 33. Blocking Aβ generation by β-secretase inhibitors significantly decreased tau phosphorylation in the same model, but γ-secretase inhibitor, another Aβ blocker, did not affect tau phosphorylation 33. Neurons with the APP V717I FAD mutation also showed an increase in levels of phospho tau and total tau levels 28. More importantly, Muratore and colleagues showed that treatments with Aβ-neutralizing antibodies in those cells significantly reduced the elevated total and phospho tau levels at the early stages of differentiation, suggesting that blocking pathogenic Aβ can reverse the abnormal tau accumulation in APP V717I neurons 28.

Recently, Moore et al. also reported that neurons harboring the APP V717I or the APP duplication FAD mutation showed increases in both total and phospho tau levels 27. Interestingly, altered tau levels were not detected in human neurons carrying PS1 FAD mutations, which significantly increased pathogenic Aβ42 species in the same cells 27. These data suggest that elevated tau levels in these models were not due to extracellular Aβ accumulation but may possibly represent a very early stage of tauopathy. It may also be due to developmental alterations induced by the APP FAD mutations.

As summarized, most human FAD neurons showed significant increases in pathogenic Aβ species, while only APP FAD neurons showed altered tau metabolism that may represent very early stages of tauopathy. However, all of these human FAD neurons failed to recapitulate robust extracellular amyloid plaques, NFTs, or any signs of neuronal death, as predicted in the amyloid hypothesis.

In our recent study, we moved one step closer to proving the amyloid hypothesis. By generating human neural stem cell lines carrying multiple mutations in APP together with PS1, we achieved high levels of pathogenic Aβ42 comparable to those in brains of AD patients 4446.

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Platform for AD drug screening in human neural progenitor cells with FAD mutations in a 3D culture system, which successfully reproduce human AD pathogenesis (amyloid plaques-driven tauopathy).

In addition to the impact on toxic Aβ species, our 3D culture model can test if these antibodies can block tau pathologies in 3D human neural cell culture systems 4446. Human cellular AD models can also be used to determine optimal doses of candidate AD drugs to block Aβ and/or tau pathology without affecting neuronal survival (Fig. 1).

While much progress has been made, many challenges still lie on the path to creating human neural cell culture models that comprehensively recapitulate pathogenic cascades of AD. A major difficulty lies in reconstituting the brain regions most affected in AD: the hippocampus and specific cortical layers. Recent progress in 3D culture technology, such as “cerebral organoids,” may also be helpful in rebuilding the brain structures that are affected by AD in a dish 52,53. These “cerebral organoids” were able to model various discrete brain regions including human cortical areas 52, which enabled them to reproduce microcephaly, a brain developmental disorder. Similarly, pathogenic cascades of AD may be recapitulated in cortex-like structures using this model. Adding neuroinflammatory components, such as microglial cells, which are critical in AD pathogenesis, will illuminate the validity of the amyloid β hypothesis. Reconstitution of robust neuronal death stemming from Aβ and tau pathologies will be the next major step in comprehensively recapitulating AD in a cellular model.


Family-based association analyses of imputed genotypes reveal genome-wide significant association of Alzheimer’s disease with OSBPL6, PTPRG, and PDCL3.

Herold C, Hooli BV, Mullin K, Liu T, Roehr JT, Mattheisen M, Parrado AR, Bertram L, Lange C, Tanzi RE.

Mol Psychiatry. 2016 Feb 2.

Relationship between ubiquilin-1 and BACE1 in human Alzheimer’s disease and APdE9 transgenic mouse brain and cell-based models.

Natunen T, Takalo M, Kemppainen S, Leskelä S, Marttinen M, Kurkinen KM, Pursiheimo JP, Sarajärvi T, Viswanathan J, Gabbouj S, Solje E, Tahvanainen E, Pirttimäki T, Kurki M, Paananen J, Rauramaa T, Miettinen P, Mäkinen P, Leinonen V, Soininen H, Airenne K, Tanzi RE, Tanila H, Haapasalo A, Hiltunen M.

Neurobiol Dis. 2016 Jan;85:187-205.

Accumulation of β-amyloid (Aβ) and phosphorylated tau in the brain are central events underlying Alzheimer’s disease (AD) pathogenesis. Aβ is generated from amyloid precursor protein (APP) by β-site APP-cleaving enzyme 1 (BACE1) and γ-secretase-mediated cleavages. Ubiquilin-1, a ubiquitin-like protein, genetically associates with AD and affects APP trafficking, processing and degradation. Here, we have investigated ubiquilin-1 expression in human brain in relation to AD-related neurofibrillary pathology and the effects of ubiquilin-1 overexpression on BACE1, tau, neuroinflammation, and neuronal viability in vitro in co-cultures of mouse embryonic primary cortical neurons and microglial cells under acute neuroinflammation as well as neuronal cell lines, and in vivo in the brain of APdE9 transgenic mice at the early phase of the development of Aβ pathology. Ubiquilin-1 expression was decreased in human temporal cortex in relation to the early stages of AD-related neurofibrillary pathology (Braak stages 0-II vs. III-IV). There was a trend towards a positive correlation between ubiquilin-1 and BACE1 protein levels. Consistent with this, ubiquilin-1 overexpression in the neuron-microglia co-cultures with or without the induction of neuroinflammation resulted in a significant increase in endogenously expressed BACE1 levels. Sustained ubiquilin-1 overexpression in the brain of APdE9 mice resulted in a moderate, but insignificant increase in endogenous BACE1 levels and activity, coinciding with increased levels of soluble Aβ40 and Aβ42. BACE1 levels were also significantly increased in neuronal cells co-overexpressing ubiquilin-1 and BACE1. Ubiquilin-1 overexpression led to the stabilization of BACE1 protein levels, potentially through a mechanism involving decreased degradation in the lysosomal compartment. Ubiquilin-1 overexpression did not significantly affect the neuroinflammation response, but decreased neuronal viability in the neuron-microglia co-cultures under neuroinflammation. Taken together, these results suggest that ubiquilin-1 may mechanistically participate in AD molecular pathogenesis by affecting BACE1 and thereby APP processing and Aβ accumulation.

Correction to Cathepsin L Mediates the Degradation of Novel APP C-Terminal Fragments.

Wang H, Sang N, Zhang C, Raghupathi R, Tanzi RE, Saunders A.

Biochemistry. 2015 Sep 22;54(37):5781. Epub 2015 Sep 8. No abstract available.

Massachusetts Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center: progress and challenges.

Hyman BT, Growdon JH, Albers MW, Buckner RL, Chhatwal J, Gomez-Isla MT, Haass C, Hudry E, Jack CR Jr, Johnson KA, Khachaturian ZS, Kim DY, Martin JB, Nitsch RM, Rosen BR, Selkoe DJ, Sperling RA, St George-Hyslop P, Tanzi RE, Yap L, Young AB, Phelps CH, McCaffrey PG.

Alzheimers Dement. 2015 Oct;11(10):1241-5. Epub 2015 Aug 19. No abstract available.

Alzheimer’s in 3D culture: challenges and perspectives.

D’Avanzo C, Aronson J, Kim YH, Choi SH, Tanzi RE, Kim DY.

Bioessays. 2015 Oct;37(10):1139-48. doi: 10.1002/bies.201500063. Epub 2015 Aug 7. Review.

Synaptotagmins interact with APP and promote Aβ generation.

Gautam V, D’Avanzo C, Berezovska O, Tanzi RE, Kovacs DM.

Mol Neurodegener. 2015 Jul 23;10:31. doi: 10.1186/s13024-015-0028-5.

Near-infrared fluorescence molecular imaging of amyloid beta species and monitoring therapy in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease.

Zhang X, Tian Y, Zhang C, Tian X, Ross AW, Moir RD, Sun H, Tanzi RE, Moore A, Ran C.

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Aug 4;112(31):9734-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1505420112. Epub 2015 Jul 21.

A 3D human neural cell culture system for modeling Alzheimer’s disease.

Kim YH, Choi SH, D’Avanzo C, Hebisch M, Sliwinski C, Bylykbashi E, Washicosky KJ, Klee JB, Brüstle O, Tanzi RE, Kim DY.

Nat Protoc. 2015 Jul;10(7):985-1006. doi: 10.1038/nprot.2015.065. Epub 2015 Jun 11.

Cathepsin L Mediates the Degradation of Novel APP C-Terminal Fragments.

Wang H, Sang N, Zhang C, Raghupathi R, Tanzi RE, Saunders A.

Biochemistry. 2015 May 12;54(18):2806-16. doi: 10.1021/acs.biochem.5b00329. Epub 2015 Apr 28. Erratum in: Biochemistry. 2015 Sep 22;54(37):5781.

γ-Secretase modulators reduce endogenous amyloid β42 levels in human neural progenitor cells without altering neuronal differentiation.

D’Avanzo C, Sliwinski C, Wagner SL, Tanzi RE, Kim DY, Kovacs DM.

FASEB J. 2015 Aug;29(8):3335-41. doi: 10.1096/fj.15-271015. Epub 2015 Apr 22.

PLD3 gene variants and Alzheimer’s disease.

Hooli BV, Lill CM, Mullin K, Qiao D, Lange C, Bertram L, Tanzi RE.

Nature. 2015 Apr 2;520(7545):E7-8. doi: 10.1038/nature14040. No abstract available.

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Recent progress in neurodegenerative diseases and gliomas

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP




Alzheimer’s Protein Not All Bad, Says MassGen Study

A controversial idea—that amyloid-beta (Aβ) protein fights bacterial infections in the brain—has gained additional support from a new study. Previously, the idea seemed worthy of investigation, if a bit of a stretch, on the basis of cell culture results. Now, thanks to the efforts of a scientific team lead by researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital, it has been reinforced by observations of how the Aβ protein functions in animals’ brains.

Details of the new study appeared May 25 in the journal Science Translational Medicine, in an article entitled, “Amyloid-β Peptide Protects against Microbial Infection in Mouse and Worm Models of Alzheimer’s Disease.” The article suggests that the tendency of Aβ protein to form insoluble aggregates is not, as has been widely assumed, intrinsically abnormal, even though the aggregates are recognized as a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Rather, Aβ protein appears to be a natural antibiotic that can trap and imprison bacterial pathogens that manage to pass the blood–brain barrier, which becomes increasingly “leaky” with age.

“We present in vivo data showing that Aβ expression protects against fungal and bacterial infections in mouse, nematode, and cell culture models of AD,” wrote the article’s authors. “We show that Aβ oligomerization, a behavior traditionally viewed as intrinsically pathological, may be necessary for the antimicrobial activities of the peptide.”

The MassGen scientists and their colleagues found that transgenic mice expressing human Aβ survived significantly longer after the induction of Salmonella infection in their brains than did mice with no genetic alteration. Mice lacking the amyloid precursor protein died even more rapidly. Transgenic Aβ expression also appeared to protect C. elegans roundworms from either Candida orSalmonella infection. Similarly, human Aβ expression protected cultured neuronal cells from Candida. In fact, human Aβ expressed by living cells appears to be 1000 times more potent against infection than does the synthetic Aβ used in previous studies.

That superiority appears to relate to properties of Aβ that have been considered part of Alzheimer’s disease pathology—the propensity of small molecules to form oligomers and then aggregate into Aβ plaques. This propensity, suggests the MassGen-led team, may indicate that Aβ acts like an antimicrobial peptide (AMP).

While AMPs fight infection through several mechanisms, a fundamental process involves forming oligomers that bind to microbial surfaces and then clump together into aggregates that both prevent the pathogens from attaching to host cells and allow the AMPs to kill microbes by disrupting their cellular membranes. The synthetic Aβ preparations used in earlier studies did not include oligomers. In the current study, however, oligomeric human Aβ not only showed an even stronger antimicrobial activity, its aggregation into the sorts of fibrils that form Aβ plaques was also seen to entrap microbes in both mouse and roundworm models.

“Our findings raise the intriguing possibility that β-amyloid may play a protective role in innate immunity and infectious or sterile inflammatory stimuli may drive amyloidosis,” the study’s authors concluded. “These data suggest a dual protective/damaging role for Aβ, as has been described for other antimicrobial peptides.”

One of the study’s co-corresponding authors, Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit in the MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease (MGH-MIND), pointed out that AMPs are known to play a role in the pathologies of a broad range of major and minor inflammatory disease. “For example, LL-37, which has been our model for Aβ’s antimicrobial activities, has been implicated in several late-life diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and atherosclerosis,” he elaborated. “The sort of dysregulation of AMP activity that can cause sustained inflammation in those conditions could contribute to the neurodegenerative actions of Aβ in Alzheimer’s disease.”

The study’s other co-corresponding author, Robert Moir, M.D., also of the MGH-MIND Genetics and Aging unit, noted that the study’s findings may lead to potential new therapeutic strategies. He also indicated that therapies designed to eliminate amyloid plaques from patient’s brains may have their limitations.

“It does appear likely that the inflammatory pathways of the innate immune system could be potential treatment targets, Dr. Moir explained. “If validated, our data also warrant the need for caution with therapies aimed at totally removing Aβ plaques. Amyloid-based therapies aimed at dialing down but not wiping out Aβ in the brain might be a better strategy.”

It remains to be determined, however, whether Aβ typically fights real infections or is apt to behave errantly, forming aggregates as though microbes are present, even if they are, in fact, not. “Our findings raise the intriguing possibility that Alzheimer’s pathology may arise when the brain perceives itself to be under attack from invading pathogens,” said Dr. Moir. “Further study will be required to determine whether or not a bona fide infection is involved.”Amyloid-β peptide protects against microbial infection in mouse and worm models of Alzheimer’s disease

Deepak Kumar, Vijaya Kumar, Se Hoon Choi, Kevin J. Washicosky, et al.
Science Translational Medicine  25 May 2016;  8 (340): 340ra72

Rehabilitation of a β-amyloid bad boy

A protein called Aβ is thought to cause neuronal death in Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Aβ forms insoluble aggregates in the brains of patients with AD, which are a hallmark of the disease. Aβ and its propensity for aggregation are widely viewed as intrinsically abnormal. However, in new work, Kumar et al. show that Aβ is a natural antibiotic that protects the brain from infection. Most surprisingly, Aβ aggregates trap and imprison bacterial pathogens. It remains unclear whether Aβ is fighting a real or falsely perceived infection in AD. However, in any case, these findings identify inflammatory pathways as potential new drug targets for treating AD.


The amyloid-β peptide (Aβ) is a key protein in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) pathology. We previously reported in vitro evidence suggesting that Aβ is an antimicrobial peptide. We present in vivo data showing that Aβ expression protects against fungal and bacterial infections in mouse, nematode, and cell culture models of AD. We show that Aβ oligomerization, a behavior traditionally viewed as intrinsically pathological, may be necessary for the antimicrobial activities of the peptide. Collectively, our data are consistent with a model in which soluble Aβ oligomers first bind to microbial cell wall carbohydrates via a heparin-binding domain. Developing protofibrils inhibited pathogen adhesion to host cells. Propagating β-amyloid fibrils mediate agglutination and eventual entrapment of unatttached microbes. Consistent with our model, Salmonella Typhimurium bacterial infection of the brains of transgenic 5XFAD mice resulted in rapid seeding and accelerated β-amyloid deposition, which closely colocalized with the invading bacteria. Our findings raise the intriguing possibility that β-amyloid may play a protective role in innate immunity and infectious or sterile inflammatory stimuli may drive amyloidosis. These data suggest a dual protective/damaging role for Aβ, as has been described for other antimicrobial peptides.


CRISPR Crossing New Barriers

Researchers Are Developing Ways to Edit Some of the Most Difficult-to-Edit DNA-Neuronal DNA


Confocal microscopic image of the hippocampus showing immunoreactivities for mEGFP (magenta) and the HA tag (green) fused to ß-Actin.

Ryohei Yasuda, Ph.D., scientific director, and his team at the Max Planck Florida Institute of Neuroscience (MPFI) are working to understand the way individual cells in our brains change as we learn and form memories. One of their main goals is to understand how different proteins behave and impact the structure and function of an individual cell, but, much like the field of genetics was once limited by the inability to visualize the structure of DNA, their research has been limited by their ability to locate and visualize the many different types of proteins within a single cell. Current imaging methods do not provide contrast and specificity high enough to see distinct proteins. Plus, the best methods are time-consuming and expensive; it can take a year or more to develop engineered models.

Over the past few years, the development of CRISPR technology has helped scientists overcome countless genetic engineering challenges, and allowed them to edit genes with unmatched precision and speed, massively increasing clarity and cutting the cost of research requiring genetic engineering. The technique has been used in myriad ways to increase understanding and treatment of diseases and disorders, but some cells are more difficult to edit than others. Brain cells have proven especially difficult to manipulate using CRISPR.

Recently, MPFI researchers Takayasu Mikuni, Ph.D., M.D., and Jun Nishiyama, Ph.D., M.D., and Dr. Yasuda were able to harness the power of the CRISPR/Cas9 system in order to create a quick, scalable, and high-resolution technique to edit neuronal DNA, which they called “SLENDR,” (single-cell labeling of endogenous proteins by CRISPR/Cas9-mediated homology-directed repair.) Using the technique, the researchers labeled several distinct proteins with fluorescence, and were able to observe protein localization in the brain that was previously invisible. That’s just the start of what researchers may be able to accomplish using this reliable, new technique for inserting genes into neurons.

CRISPR/Cas9 and Neurons

CRISPR is a tool built into bacterial DNA that the organisms use to fight infections. When a virus invades and attempts to insert its infectious DNA into that of a bacterial cell, a special section of the bacterial DNA, called CRISPR, cuts the viral DNA and renders it unable to wreak havoc on the bacteria. The organism then inserts a copy of the viral DNA into its own DNA to work as a type of adaptive immune system, to better recognize and defeat the invader in the future. As scientists have begun to understand how this system works, they have manipulated it to target and damage specific, functional genes in a variety of organisms, and in some cases, insert a new gene in its place.

Once the section of DNA is damaged, the technique relies on the cell to naturally repair its own DNA. There are two methods that the cell might use to accomplish this. One is homology-directed repair (HDR), the other is non-homologous end joining (NHEJ). HDR rebuilds or replaces the damaged locus of the genome, whereas NHEJ reattaches the damaged ends. When the reattachment occurs following the degradation of the ends, it often leads to the deletion of function of the gene (“knock-out” the gene). If a cell uses HDR to repair itself, scientists can include a desired gene in the CRISPR system that will be inserted into the DNA to replace the damaged gene.

Despite the impressive power of CRISPR system, its use in brain cells has been limited because by the time the brain has developed, its cells are no longer dividing. Most mature brain cells will repair themselves using NHEJ. The researcher can’t give the cell a gene to insert if it’s not going to insert one to begin with. While scientists can use CRISPR relatively easily to damage and knock out certain genes through NHEJ in the brain, the lack of cell division has made it very difficult for them to knock indesired sequences to genes, through HDR, with reliable precision. That’s where the SLENDR technique comes in.


SLENDR combines the power of the CRISPR/Cas9 system with the specificity and timing of in utero electroporation. Electroporation is a well-known technique used for introducing new material into cells and creating genetic knock-outs and knock-ins. Using in utero electroporation allows researchers to insert the CRISPR/CAS9 system into prenatal models, where brain cells are still developing and dividing. Thus, the broken DNA is still being repaired via HDR, giving researchers the opportunity to precisely modify a gene. This is a big deal. “I believe that SLENDR will be a standard tool for molecular and cellular neurobiology,” said Dr. Yasuda. “SLENDR provides a valuable means to determine subcellular localization of proteins, and will help researchers to determine the function of the proteins.”

In the recent study, the researchers at MPFI inserted a gene that made proteins of interest fluoresce under the microscope. They were even able to reliably label two different proteins with distinct colors at the same time in the same cell. The researchers were able to use the technique to visualize the proteins both in vivo and in vitro. And they were able to do it in a matter of days rather than years.

With existing knowledge of how brains develop, researchers can adjust the timing and position of the electroporation in utero to accurately target cells that will go on to populate particular cortical layers of the brain, even if they haven’t differentiated and moved to that layer yet.

The recent study used the technique primarily to tag certain proteins within brain cells and observe their behavior. But, with continued optimization, the method has the potential to elucidate immeasurable brain activities in both normal and diseased brains, and lead to a deeper understanding of brain function. “The most important part is that precise genome editing is possible in the brain. That’s what’s important,” said Dr.  Nishiyama, post-doctoral researcher who worked on the study. “That’s the biggest thing.” Neuroscientists would be remiss to ignore its worth and not explore its potential.

Emma Yasinski is a scientific writer at Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience. Correspondence should be directed to Ryohei Yasuda, Ph.D. (, scientific director, Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience.


Altered Metabolism of Four Compounds Drives Glioblastoma Growth

Findings suggest new ways to treat the malignancy, slow its progression and reveal its extent more precisely.

The altered metabolism of two essential amino acids helps drive the development of the most common and lethal form of brain cancer, according to a new study led by researchers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

The study shows that in glioblastoma (GBM), the essential amino acids methionine and tryptophan are abnormally metabolized due to the loss of key enzymes in GBM cells.

The altered methionine metabolism leads to activation of oncogenes, while the changes in tryptophan metabolism shield GBM cells from detection by immune cells. Together, the changes promote tumor progress and cancer-cell survival.

“Our findings suggest that restricting dietary intake of methionine and tryptophan might help slow tumor progression and improve treatment outcomes,” says first author and OSUCCC – James researcher Kamalakannan Palanichamy, PhD, research assistant professor in Radiation Oncology.

“While we need to better understand how these abnormally regulated metabolites activate oncogenic proteins, our intriguing discovery suggests novel therapeutic targets for this disease,” says principal investigator and study leader Arnab Chakravarti, MD, chair and professor of Radiation Oncology and co-director of the Brain Tumor Program.

“For example, restoring the lost enzymes in the two metabolic pathways might slow tumor progression and reduce aggressiveness by inactivating oncogenic kinases and activating immune responses,” says Chakravarti, who holds the Max Morehouse Chair in Cancer Research.

Chakravarti further notes that because GBM cells take up methionine much faster than normal glioma cells, positron emission tomography that uses methionine as a tracer (MET-PET) might help map GBM tumors more accurately, allowing more precise surgical removal and radiation therapy planning. (MET-PET is currently an experimental imaging method.)

More than 11,880 new cases of GBM were estimated to occur in 2015, with overall survival averaging 12 to 15 months, so there is an urgent need for more effective therapies.

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Tryptophan and methionine are essential amino acids – the diet must provide them because cells cannot make them. Normally, the lack of an essential amino acid in the diet can lead to serious diseases and even death. Foods rich in tryptophan and methionine include cheese, lamb, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, nuts and soybeans.

Palanichamy, Chakravarti and their colleagues conducted this study using 13 primary GBM cell lines derived from patient tumors, four commercially available GBM cell lines and normal human astrocyte cells. Metabolite analyses were done using liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry.


An investigation carried out at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OH, USA) has uncovered abnormal metabolism of the essential amino acids methionine and tryptophan in glioblastoma.

The study suggests that this abnormal amino acid metabolism aids in the development of the disease. Furthermore, the findings, published recently in Clinical Cancer Research, hint at novel methods to potentially treat the malignancy, slow its progression and reveal its extent more precisely.

According to the study, it is the loss of key enzymes within glioblastoma cells that results in this abnormal metabolism. Modified methionine metabolism is described as promoting the activation of oncogenes, and the changes in tryptophan aid in masking the malignant cells from the immune system.

“While we need to better understand how these abnormally regulated metabolites activate oncogenic proteins, our intriguing discovery suggests novel therapeutic targets for this disease,” commented principal investigator and study leader Arnab Chakravarti (The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center).


Rapid eye movement sleep (dreaming) shown necessary for memory formation

Rapid eye movement sleep (dreaming) shown necessary for memory formation
A study published in the journal Science by researchers at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute at McGill University and the University of Bern provides the first evidence that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — the phase where dreams appear — is directly involved in memory formation (at least in mice). “We already knew that … more…

May 16, 2016

Inhibition of  media septum GABA neurons during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep reduces theta rhythm (a characteristic of REM sleep). Schematic of the in vivo recording configuration: an optic fiber delivered orange laser light to the media septum part of the brain, allowing for optogenetic inhibition of media septum GABA neurons while recording the local field potential signal from electrodes implanted in hippocampus area CA1. (credit: Richard Boyce et al./Science)

A study published in the journal Science by researchers at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute at McGill University and the University of Bern provides the first evidence that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — the phase where dreams appear — is directly involved in memory formation (at least in mice).

“We already knew that newly acquired information is stored into different types of memories, spatial or emotional, before being consolidated or integrated,” says Sylvain Williams, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at McGill*. “How the brain performs this process has remained unclear until now. We were able to prove for the first time that REM sleep (dreaming) is indeed critical for normal spatial memory formation in mice,” said Williams.

Dream quest

Hundreds of previous studies have tried unsuccessfully to isolate neural activity during REM sleep using traditional experimental methods. In this new study, the researchers instead used optogenetics, which enables scientists to precisely target a population of neurons and control its activity by light.

“We chose to target [GABA neurons in the media septum] that regulate the activity of the hippocampus, a structure that is critical for memory formation during wakefulness and is known as the ‘GPS system’ of the brain,” Williams says.

To test the long-term spatial memory of mice, the scientists trained the rodents to spot a new object placed in a controlled environment where two objects of similar shape and volume stand. Spontaneously, mice spend more time exploring a novel object than a familiar one, showing their use of learning and recall.

Shining orange laser light on media septum (MS) GABA neurons during REM sleep reduces frequency and power (purple section) of neuron signals in dorsal CA1 area of hippocampus (credit: Richard Boyce et al./Science)

When these mice were in REM sleep, however, the researchers used light pulses to turn off their memory-associated neurons to determine if it affects their memory consolidation. The next day, the same rodents did not succeed the spatial memory task learned on the previous day. Compared to the control group, their memory seemed erased, or at least impaired.

“Silencing the same neurons for similar durations outside of REM episodes had no effect on memory. This indicates that neuronal activity specifically during REM sleep is required for normal memory consolidation,” says the study’s lead author, Richard Boyce, a PhD student.

Implications for brain disease

REM sleep is understood to be a critical component of sleep in all mammals, including humans. Poor sleep quality is increasingly associated with the onset of various brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

In particular, REM sleep is often significantly perturbed in Alzheimer’s diseases (AD), and results from this study suggest that disruption of REM sleep may contribute directly to memory impairments observed in AD, the researchers say.

This work was partly funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), a postdoctoral fellowship from Fonds de la recherche en Santé du Québec (FRSQ) and an Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate scholarship (NSERC).

* Williams’ team is also part of the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal research network. Williams co-authored the study with Antoine Adamantidis, a researcher at the University of Bern’s Department of Clinical Research and at the Sleep Wake Epilepsy Center of the Bern University Hospital.

Abstract of Causal evidence for the role of REM sleep theta rhythm in contextual memory consolidation

Rapid eye movement sleep (REMS) has been linked with spatial and emotional memory consolidation. However, establishing direct causality between neural activity during REMS and memory consolidation has proven difficult because of the transient nature of REMS and significant caveats associated with REMS deprivation techniques. In mice, we optogenetically silenced medial septum γ-aminobutyric acid–releasing (MSGABA) neurons, allowing for temporally precise attenuation of the memory-associated theta rhythm during REMS without disturbing sleeping behavior. REMS-specific optogenetic silencing of MSGABA neurons selectively during a REMS critical window after learning erased subsequent novel object place recognition and impaired fear-conditioned contextual memory. Silencing MSGABA neurons for similar durations outside REMS episodes had no effect on memory. These results demonstrate that MSGABA neuronal activity specifically during REMS is required for normal memory consolidation.


Quantifying Consciousness

By Tanya Lewis

Overall brain metabolic rate can distinguish between pathological states of human consciousness, a study shows.


Time-resolved studies define the nature of toxic IAPP intermediates, providing insight for anti-amyloidosis therapeutics

Abedini A, Plesner A, Cao P, Ridgway Z, et al.
eLife May 23, 2016; 10.7554/eLife.12977.

Islet amyloidosis by IAPP contributes to pancreatic β-cell death in diabetes, but the nature of toxic IAPP species remains elusive. Using concurrent time-resolved biophysical and biological measurements, we define the toxic species produced during IAPP amyloid formation and link their properties to induction of rat INS-1 β-cell and murine islet toxicity. These globally flexible, low order oligomers upregulate pro-inflammatory markers and induce reactive oxygen species. They do not bind 1-anilnonaphthalene-8-sulphonic acid and lack extensive β-sheet structure. Aromatic interactions modulate, but are not required for toxicity. Not all IAPP oligomers are toxic; toxicity depends on their partially structured conformational states. Some anti-amyloid agents paradoxically prolong cytotoxicity by prolonging the lifetime of the toxic species. The data highlight the distinguishing properties of toxic IAPP oligomers and the common features that they share with toxic species reported for other amyloidogenic polypeptides, providing information for rational drug design to treat IAPP induced β-cell death.


NIH study visualizes proteins involved in cancer cell metabolism

Cryo-EM methods can determine structures of small proteins bound to potential drug candidates.

Scientists using a technology called cryo-EM (cryo-electron microscopy) have broken through a technological barrier in visualizing proteins with an approach that may have an impact on drug discovery and development. They were able to capture images of glutamate dehydrogenase, an enzyme found in cells, at a resolution of 1.8 angstroms, a level of detail at which the structure of the central parts of the enzyme could be visualized in atomic detail. The scientists from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, and their colleagues also reported achieving another major milestone, by showing that the shapes of cancer target proteins too small to be considered within the reach of current cryo-EM capabilities can now be determined at high resolution.

The research team was led by NCI’s Sriram Subramaniam, Ph.D., with contributions from scientists at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), also part of NIH. The findings appeared online May 26, 2016, in Cell.

“These advances demonstrate a real-life scenario in which drug developers now could potentially use cryo-EM to tweak drugs by actually observing the effects of varying drug structure — much like an explorer mapping the shoreline to find the best place to dock a boat — and alter its activity for a therapeutic effect,” said Doug Lowy, M.D., acting director, NCI.

Both discoveries have the potential to have an impact on drug discovery and development. Cryo-EM imaging enables analysis of structures of target proteins bound to drug candidates without first needing a step to coax the proteins to form ordered arrays. These arrays were needed for the traditional method of structure determination using X-ray crystallography, a powerful technique that has served researchers well for more than a half century. However, not all proteins can be crystallized easily, and those that do crystallize may not display the same shape that is present in their natural environment, either since the protein shape can be modified by crystallization additives or by the contacts that form between neighboring proteins within the crystal lattice.

“It is exciting to be able to use cryo-EM to visualize structures of complexes of potential drug candidates at such a high level of detail.”

Sriram Subramaniam, Ph.D.,National Caner Institute

“It is exciting to be able to use cryo-EM to visualize structures of complexes of potential drug candidates at such a high level of detail,” said Subramaniam. “The fact that we can obtain structures of small cancer target proteins bound to drug candidates without needing to form 3D crystals could revolutionize and accelerate the drug discovery process.”

Two of the small proteins the researchers imaged in this new study, isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH1) and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), are active targets for cancer drug development. Mutations in the genes that code for these proteins are common in several types of cancer. Thus, imaging the surfaces of these proteins in detail can help scientists identify molecules that will bind to them and aid in turning the protein activity off.

In publications in the journal Science last year and this year, Subramaniam and his team reported resolutions of 2.2 angstroms and 2.3 angstroms in cryo-EM with larger proteins, including a complex of a cancer target protein with a small molecule inhibitor. Of note, the journal Nature Methods deemed cryo-EM as the “Method of the Year” in January 2016. “Our earlier work showed what was technically possible,” Subramaniam said. “This latest advance is a delivery of that promise for small cancer target proteins.” For more information on cryo-EM, go to


Time-resolved studies define the nature of toxic IAPP intermediates, providing insight for anti-amyloidosis therapeutics.

Abedini A, Plesner A, Cao P, Ridgway Z, et al.
eLife May 23, 2016; 10.7554/eLife.12977.

Islet amyloidosis by IAPP contributes to pancreatic β-cell death in diabetes, but the nature of toxic IAPP species remains elusive. Using concurrent time-resolved biophysical and biological measurements, we define the toxic species produced during IAPP amyloid formation and link their properties to induction of rat INS-1 β-cell and murine islet toxicity. These globally flexible, low order oligomers upregulate pro-inflammatory markers and induce reactive oxygen species. They do not bind 1-anilnonaphthalene-8-sulphonic acid and lack extensive β-sheet structure. Aromatic interactions modulate, but are not required for toxicity. Not all IAPP oligomers are toxic; toxicity depends on their partially structured conformational states. Some anti-amyloid agents paradoxically prolong cytotoxicity by prolonging the lifetime of the toxic species. The data highlight the distinguishing properties of toxic IAPP oligomers and the common features that they share with toxic species reported for other amyloidogenic polypeptides, providing information for rational drug design to treat IAPP induced β-cell death.


Single domain antibodies (sdAbs) aid in x-ray crystallography of mammalian serotonin 5-HT3 receptor

Serotonin 5-HT3 is part of the cys-loop receptor family, the mechanism of this family is not well understood due to difficulties in obtaining high resolution crystal structures. Serotonin 5-HT3 receptor is an important druggable target in alleviating nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy or anesthesia, as well as psychiatric disorders. It’s structure is critical in discovering new drugs to modulate its activity.

Previously, electron microscopy imaging of non-mammalian homologs of Cys-loop receptors provided basic understanding of extracellular ligand binding sites and pore forming domains. Little was known about intracellular domains and the way they interact with cellular scaffolding proteins, as they are absent in non-mammalian homologs. A recent publication in Nature extends our understanding behind the mechanism of serotonin 5-HT3 receptors, by resolving a 3.5A crystal structure.

Mouse 5-HT3 exists as a homopentamer and is difficult to express, purify and crystallize. To overcome this challenge, researchers split the receptor by proteolyzing each subunit into two fragments. In addition, an sdAb chaperone, which acts as an inhibitor locking the channel into a non-conducting conformation, was used to stabilized the pentameric structure, enabling resolution of a 3.5A crystal structure. Most importantly the split receptor displays an intracellular domain that is tightly coupled to the membrane domain, which provides important structural information that will lead to further understanding of the physiological conformation of 5-HT3 and Cys-loop receptors.

Hassaine G. et al. X-ray structure of the mouse serotonin 5-HT3 receptor Nature. Aug 2014. 512(7514):276-281


UCLA animal study shows how brain connects memories across time

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Using a miniature microscope that opens a window into the brain, UCLA neuroscientists have identified in mice how the brain links different memories over time–and this may help develop new drugs in the future for memory-robbing diseases such as Alzheimer’s.


FDA approves new antibody drug for treating pediatric neuroblastoma

Pediatric neuroblastoma is a rare and difficult to treat cancer that forms from immature nerve cells. This form of cancer occurs in 1 in 100,000 children, with 650 new cases each year in the United States. Current therapies, which are non-specific, only provide 40-50% long term survival rate to patients suffering from high-risk neuroblastoma, making this form of cancer an area of high medical unmet need.

A new drug, called dinutuxumab was granted priority review and orphan drug designation by the FDA. It is the first drug of its kind to be approved that specifically treats pediatric neuroblastoma. In addition to the approval, the FDA also issued a rare pediatric review priority voucher to the makers of the drug, for future groundbreaking therapies in pediatric neuroblastoma.

Dinutuxumab (formerly called ch14.18) is a disialoganglioside (GD2) binding chimeric monoclonal antibody that works in combination with granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), interleukin-2 (IL-2), and 13-cis-retinoic acid (RA) for treating high-risk pediatric neuroblastoma.

Antibody therapeutics are highly efficacious and specific towards rare and difficult-to-treat cancers and discovery of new antibody therapeutics will help address critical needs. Antibody drug discovery may be challenging, but working with an experienced partner can help.

FDA approves first therapy for high-risk neuroblastoma


Electronic Biosensor Detects Molecules Linked to Cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s

5/20/2016  by Fundação de Amparo À Pesquisa Do Estado de São Paulo

A biosensor developed by researchers at the National Nanotechnology Laboratory (LNNano) in Campinas, São Paulo State, Brazil, has been proven capable of detecting molecules associated with neurodegenerative diseases and some types of cancer.

The device is basically a single-layer organic nanometer-scale transistor on a glass slide. It contains the reduced form of the peptide glutathione (GSH), which reacts in a specific way when it comes into contact with the enzyme glutathione S-transferase (GST), linked to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and breast cancer, among other diseases. The GSH-GST reaction is detected by the transistor, which can be used for diagnostic purposes.

An inexpensive portable biosensor has been developed by researchers at Brazil’s National Nanotechnology Laboratory with FAPESP’s support. (Credit: LNNano)

The project focuses on the development of point-of-care devices by researchers in a range of knowledge areas, using functional materials to produce simple sensors and microfluidic systems for rapid diagnosis.

“Platforms like this one can be deployed to diagnose complex diseases quickly, safely and relatively cheaply, using nanometer-scale systems to identify molecules of interest in the material analyzed,” explained Carlos Cesar Bof Bufon, Head of LNNano’s Functional Devices & Systems Lab (DSF) and a member of the research team for the project, whose principal investigator is Lauro Kubota, a professor at the University of Campinas’s Chemistry Institute (IQ-UNICAMP).

In addition to portability and low cost, the advantages of the nanometric biosensor include its sensitivity in detecting molecules, according to Bufon.

“This is the first time organic transistor technology has been used in detecting the pair GSH-GST, which is important in diagnosing degenerative diseases, for example,” he explained. “The device can detect such molecules even when they’re present at very low levels in the examined material, thanks to its nanometric sensitivity.” A nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter (10-9 meter), or one millionth of a millimeter.

The system can be adapted to detect other substances, such as molecules linked to different diseases and elements present in contaminated material, among other applications. This requires replacing the molecules in the sensor with others that react with the chemicals targeted by the test, which are known as analytes.

The team is working on paper-based biosensors to lower the cost even further and to improve portability and facilitate fabrication as well as disposal.

The challenge is that paper is an insulator in its usual form. Bufon has developed a technique to make paper conductive and capable of transporting sensing data by impregnating cellulose fibers with polymers that have conductive properties.

The technique is based on in situ synthesis of conductive polymers. For the polymers not to remain trapped on the surface of the paper, they have to be synthesized inside and between the pores of the cellulose fibers. This is done by gas-phase chemical polymerization: a liquid oxidant is infiltrated into the paper, which is then exposed to monomers in the gas phase. A monomer is a molecule of low molecular weight capable of reacting with identical or different molecules of low molecular weight to form a polymer.

The monomers evaporate under the paper and penetrate the pores of the fibers at the submicrometer scale. Inside the pores, they blend with the oxidant and begin the polymerization process right there, impregnating the entire material.

The polymerized paper acquires the conductive properties of the polymers. This conductivity can be adjusted by manipulating the element embedded in the cellulose fibers, depending on the application for which the paper is designed. Thus, the device can be electrically conductive, allowing current to flow without significant losses, or semiconductive, interacting with specific molecules and functioning as a physical, chemical or electrochemical sensor.


Protein Oxidation in Aging: Not All Proteins Are Created Equal

Cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related diseases develop over the course of aging, and certain proteins are shown to play critical roles this process. Those proteins are subject to destabilization as a result of oxidation, which further leads to features of aging cells. It is estimated that almost 50% of proteins are damaged due to oxidation for people at their 80s. The oxidative damage mediated by free radicals occurs when converting food to energy in the presence of oxygen. Cellular structures, such as proteins, DNA, and lipids, are prone to these oxidation damages, which further contribute to the development of age-related diseases.

Using computational models with physics principles incorporated, de Graff el al. from Stony Brook University unfolded the molecular mechanism that how natural chemical process affects the aging of proteins. First, the authors revealed the major factor to explain stability loss in aging cells and organisms is likely to be random modification of the protein sidechains. Furthermore, through the evaluation and analysis on the protein electrostatics, the authors suggested that highly charged proteins are in particular subject to the oxidation induced destabilization. Even one single oxidation could lead to unfold the whole structure for these highly charged proteins. Old cells are enriched in those highly charged proteins, thus the destabilization effects are elevated in the aging cells. In addition, 20 proteins associated with aging are further identified to be at high risk of oxidation. The list includes telomerase proteins and histones, both of which play critical roles in the aging of cells and cancer development. The team is currently working on analyzing more proteins, with the hope to provide key information to aid targeted treatments against age-related diseases.

Further Reading: Emerging Opportunity for Treating Alzheimer Disease by Immunotherapy

Adam M.R. de Graff, Michael J. Hazoglou, Ken A. Dill. Highly Charged Proteins: The Achilles’ Heel of Aging Proteomes.Structure, 24, 285-292 (2016)

Baruch, K. et al. PD-1 Immune Checkpoint Blockade Reduces Pathology and Improves Memory in Mouse Models of Alzheimer’s Disease. Nat. Med. 22, 135-137 (2016)


Single domain antibodies shown to cross blood brain barrier and offers enhanced delivery of therapeutics to CNS targets

A major challenge in developing both small molecule and antibody therapeutics for CNS disorders including brain cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, is penetrating the blood brain barrier (BBB). A study published in FASEB demonstrated that monomeric variable heavy-chain domain of camel homodimeric antibodies (mVHH), can cross the BBB in-vivo, and recognize its intracellular target: glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP). The ability of mVHH to cross the BBB of normal animals and those undergoing pathological stress makes it a promising modality for treating CNS diseases as well as for brain imaging.

The investigators of this study expressed a recombinant fusion protein, VHH-GFP, which was able to cross the BBB in-vivo and specifically label astrocytes. GenScript is fully engaged in single-domain antibody lead generation and optimization. With our one-stop services, we are determined to be your best partner in antibody drug discovery from gene synthesis to in-vivo characterization of candidate antibodies. All you need to provide is the Genbank accession number of the antigen protein!

Li T. et al. Cell-penetrating anti-GFAP VHH and corresponding fluorescent fusion protein VHH-GFP spontaneously cross the blood-brain barrier and specifically recognize astrocytes: application to brain imaging. FASEB. Oct 2012. 26:3969-79


New insight behind the success of fighting cancer by targeting immune checkpoint proteins

Immune checkpoint blockade has proven to be highly successful in the clinic at treating aggressive and difficult-to-treat forms of cancer. The mechanism of the blockade, targeting CTLA-4 and PD-1 receptors which act as on/off switches in T cell-mediated tumor rejection, is well understood. However, little is known about the tumor antigen recognition profile of these affected T-cells, once the checkpoint blockade is initiated.

In a recent published study, the authors used genomics and bioinformatics approaches to identify critical epitopes on 3-methylcholanthrene induced sarcoma cell lines, d42m1-T3 and F244. CD8+ T cells in anti-PD-1 treated tumor bearing mice were isolated and fluorescently labeled with tetramers loaded with predicted mutant epitopes. Out of 66 predicted mutants, mLama4 and mAlg8 were among the highest in tetramer-positive infiltrating T-cells. To determine whether targeting these epitopes alone would yield similar results as anti-PD-1 treatment, vaccines against these two epitopes were developed and tested in mice. Prophylactic administration of the combined vaccine against mLama4 and mAlg8 yielded an 88% survival in tumor bearing mice, thus demonstrating that these two epitopes are the major antigenic targets from checkpoint-blockade and therapies against these two targets are similarly efficacious.

In addition to understanding the mechanism, identification of these tumor-specific mutant antigens is the first step in discovering the next wave of cancer immunotherapies via vaccines or antibody therapeutics. Choosing the right antibody platform can speed the discovery of a new therapeutics against these new targets. Single domain antibodies have the advantage of expedited optimization, flexibility of incorporating multiple specificity and functions, superior stability, and low COG over standard antibody approaches.

Gubin MM. et al. Checkpoint blockade cancer immunotherapy targets tumour-specific mutant antigens. Nature. Nov 2014. 515:577-584


Anti-PD-1 is poised to be a blockbuster, which other immune-checkpoint targeting drugs are on the horizon?

Clinical studies of anti-immune-checkpoint protein therapeutics have shown not only an improved overall survival, but also a long-term durable response, compared to chemotherapy and genomically-targeted therapy. To expand the success of immune-checkpoint therapeutics into more tumor types and improving efficacy in difficult-to-treat tumors, additional targets involved in checkpoint-blockade need to be explored, as well as testing the synergy between combining approaches.

Currently, CTLA-4 and PD-1/PD-L1 are furthest along in development, and have shown very promising results in metastatic melanoma patients. This is just a fraction of targets involved in the checkpoint-blockade pathway. Several notable targets include:

  • LAG-3 – Furthest along in clinical development with both a fusion protein and antibody approach, antibody apporach being tested in combination with anti-PD-1
  • TIM-3 – Also in clinical development. Pre-clinical studies indicate that it co-expresses with PD-1 on tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. Combination with anti-PD-improves anti-tumor response
  • VISTA – Antibody targeting VISTA was shown to improve anti-tumor immune response in mice

In addition, there are also co-stimulatory factors that are also being explored as viable therapeutic targets

  • OX40 – Both OX40 and 4-1BB are part of the TNF-receptor superfamily. Phase I data shows acceptable safety profile, and evidence of anti-tumor response in some patients
  • 4-1BB – Phase I/II data on an antibody therapeutic targeting OX40 shows promising clinical response for melanoma, renal cell carcinoma and ovarian cancer.
  • Inducible co-stimulator (ICOS) – Member of the CD28/B7 family. Its expression was found to increase upon T-cell activation. Anti-CTLA-4 therapy increases ICOS-positive effector T-cells, indicating that it may work in synergy with anti-CTLA-4. Clinical trials of anti-ICOS antibody are planned for 2015.

Sharma P and Allison JP. Immune Checkpoint Targeting in Cancer Therapy: Toward Combination Strategies with Curative Potential. Cell. April 2015;161:205-214


CTLA-4 found in dendritic cells suggests New cancer treatment possibilities

Both dendritic cells and T cells are important in triggering the immune response, whereas antigen presenting dendritic cells act as the “general” leading T cells “soldiers” to chase and eliminate enemies in the battle against cancer. The well-known immune checkpoint break, CTLA-4, is believed to be present only in T cells (and cells of the same lineage). However, a new study published in Stem Cells and Development suggests that CTLA-4 also presents in dendritic cells. It further explores the mechanism on how turning off the dendritic cells in the immune response against tumors.

Matthew Halpert, et al. Dendritic Cell Secreted CTLA-4 Regulates the T-cell Response by Downmodulating Bystander Surface B7. Stem Cells and Development, 2016; DOI: 10.1089/scd.2016.0009


With a wide range of animal models to choose from, what are the crucial factors to consider?

A recent perspective published in Nature Medicine addresses these gaps by comparing the strengths and limitations of different tumor models, as well as best models to use for answering different biological questions and best practices for preclinical modeling.

Below is a summary of the authors’ key considerations:

  • It is important to choose a model based on the biology of the target. Several diverse tumor models may be required to address complex biology
  • If the biology of the target includes signaling between the tumor and the stroma, then it is crucial to understand drug efficacy in the presence of an appropriate tumor microenvironment with orthotopic models
  • Avoid overuse of models that are highly sensitive to the drug, unless there is clinically relevant biomarker data to support the findings
  • For studying agents that reduce pre-existing tumors, make sure that the tumors are established in the model prior to treatment
  • Understanding the pharmacokinetics of a drug in the model prior to studies is important to ensure that the dosing is within range, and that off-target and toxic side effects are not skewing anti-tumor activity.

Gould SE, Junttila MR and de Sauvage FJ. Translational value of mouse models in oncology drug development. Nat Med. May 2015. 21(5):431-439

Revolutionary Impact of Nanodrug Delivery on Neuroscience

Reza Khanbabaie1,2,3 and Mohsen Jahanshahi
Curr Neuropharmacol. 2012 Dec; 10(4): 370–392.   doi:  10.2174/157015912804143513

Brain research is the most expanding interdisciplinary research that is using the state of the art techniques to overcome limitations in order to conduct more accurate and effective experiments. Drug delivery to the target site in the central nervous system (CNS) is one of the most difficult steps in neuroscience researches and therapies. Taking advantage of the nanoscale structure of neural cells (both neurons and glia); nanodrug delivery (second generation of biotechnological products) has a potential revolutionary impact into the basic understanding, visualization and therapeutic applications of neuroscience. Current review article firstly provides an overview of preparation and characterization, purification and separation, loading and delivering of nanodrugs. Different types of nanoparticle bioproducts and a number of methods for their fabrication and delivery systems including (carbon) nanotubes are explained. In the second part, neuroscience and nervous system drugs are deeply investigated. Different mechanisms in which nanoparticles enhance the uptake and clearance of molecules form cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) are discussed. The focus is on nanodrugs that are being used or have potential to improve neural researches, diagnosis and therapy of neurodegenerative disorders.

Keywords: Nanodrug, Nanofabrication and purification, Neuroscience, Nervous system, Nano-nervous drugs.


The delivery of drugs to the nervous system is mainly limited by the presence of two anatomical and biochemical dynamic barriers: the blood–brain barrier (BBB) and blood–cerebrospinal fluid barrier (BCSFB) separating the blood from the cerebral parenchyma [1]. These barriers tightly seal the central nervous system (CNS) from the changeable milieu of blood. With the advancement of electron microscopy it is found that the ultrastructural localization of the blood–brain barrier is correlated with the capillary endothelial cells within the brain [2]. The BBB inhibits the free paracellular diffusion of water-soluble molecules by an elaborate network of complex tight junctions (TJs) that interconnects the endothelial cells. Similar to the endothelial barrier, the morphological correlate of the BCSFB is found at the level of unique apical tight junctions between the choroid plexus epithelial cells inhibiting paracellular diffusion of water-soluble molecules across this barrier [1, 3]. Beside its barrier function, it allows the directed transport of ions and nutrients into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and removal of toxic agents out of the CSF using numerous transport systems.

One of the most challenging steps in neuroscience researches and therapy is the availability of techniques to penetrate these permeability barriers and delivering drugs to the CNS. Several strategies have been used to circumvent the barriers inhibiting CNS penetration. These strategies generally fall into one or more of the following three categories: manipulating drugs, disrupting the BBB (BBBD) and finding alternative routes for drug delivery. Drug manipulation methods include: Lipophilic Analogs, prodrugs, chemical drug delivery systems (CDDS), Carrier-mediated transport (CMT) and Receptor-mediated drug delivery. The drug manipulating strategy has been frequently employed, but the results have often been disappointing [46]. All of these methods have major limitations: they are invasive procedures, have toxic side effects and low efficiency, and are not sufficiently safe [7]. Two methods for disrupting the BBB have been reported: osmotic blood-brain barrier disruption and biochemical blood-brain barrier disruption. However, these procedures also break down the self-defense mechanism of the brain and make it vulnerable to damage or infection from all circulating chemicals or toxins. Since the above techniques aim to enhance the penetration of drugs to the CNS via circulatory system, they will increase the penetration of drugs throughout the entire body. This will frequently result in unwanted systemic side effects. In the other hand, systemically administered agents must penetrate the BBB to enter the CNS, which is a difficult task. Despite advances in rational CNS drug design and BBBD, many potentially efficacious drug molecules still cannot penetrate into the brain parenchyma at therapeutic concentrations. The alternative strategy to enhance CNS penetration of drug molecules is based on methodology that does not rely on the cardiovascular system. These strategies circumvent the BBB altogether and do not need drug manipulation to enhance BBB permeability and/or BBBD. Using alternative routes to deliver drugs to the CNS, e.g. intraventricular/intrathecal route and olfactory pathway, is one of these strategies.

One strategy for bypassing the BBB that has been studied extensively both in laboratory and in clinical trials is the intralumbar injection or intreventricular infusion of drugs directly into the CSF. Compared to vascular drug delivery, intra-CSF drug administration theoretically has several advantages. Intra-CSF administration bypasses the BCB and results in immediate high CSF drug concentrations. Due to the fact that the drug is somewhat contained within the CNS, a smaller dose can be used, potentially minimizing systemic toxicity. Furthermore, drugs in the CSF encounter minimize protein binding and decrease enzymatic activity relative to drugs in plasma, leading to longer drug half-life in the CSF. Finally, since the CSF freely exchanges molecules with the extracellular fluid of the brain parenchyma, delivering drugs into the CSF could theoretically result in therapeutic CNS drug concentrations [7, 8]. However, for several reasons this delivery was not as successful as predicted. These include a slow rate of drug distribution within the CSF and increase in intracranial pressure associated with fluid injection or infusion into small ventricular volumes.

Another CNS drug delivery route is the intranasal route. In this method drugs are transported intranasally along olfactory sensory neurons to yield significant concentrations in the CSF and olfactory bulb. An obvious advantage of this method is that it is noninvasive relative to other strategies. This method has received relatively little attention, since there are difficulties that have to be overcome. Among these obstacles is an enzymatically active, low pH nasal epithelium, the possibility of mucosal irritation or the possibility of large variability caused by nasal pathology, such as common cold.

Based on the advantages and disadvantages of aforementioned strategies, researchers are still looking for novel and better methods of CNS drug deliveries. The most direct way of circumventing the BBB is to deliver drugs directly to the brain interstitium which mainly includes the use of small colloidal particles like liposomes and nanoparticles [8]. By directing agents uniquely to an intracranial target, interstitial drug delivery can theoretically yield high CNS drug concentrations with minimal systemic exposure and toxicity. Furthermore, with this strategy, intracranial drug concentrations can be sustained, which is crucial in treatment with many chemotherapeutic agents. The basic reason of common acceptance of these carriers is due to their controlled profile or drug release nature as well as due to their selected targeting mechanism. Targeting action maybe due to the steric hindrance created by nano-vectors for achieving targeting ability. These carriers are usually administered through parenteral route and due to their steric phenomenon they conceal themselves from opsonisation event induced by tissue macrophages. By this way they achieve targeting ability to brain and other reticuloendothelial system (RES) organs like liver, spleen, etc.

Several approaches have been developed for delivering drugs directly to the brain interstitium like injections, catheters, and pumps. One such methodology is the Ommaya reservoir or implantable pump which achieves truly continuous drug delivery. Though interstitial drug delivery to the CNS has had only modest clinical impact, its therapeutic potential may soon be realized using new advances in polymer technologies to modify the aforementioned techniques. Polymeric or lipidbased devices that can deliver drug molecules at defined rates for specific periods of time are now making a tremendous impact in clinical medicine.

Among the strategies of direct drug delivery to the CNS, nanoparticles have attracted considerable interest from the last few decades. It has been shown that nano delivery systems have great potential to facilitate the movement of drugs across barriers (e.g., BBB). Nanosystems employed for the development of nano drug delivery systems in the treatment of CNS disorders include polymeric nanoparticles, nanospheres, nanosuspensions, nanoemulsions, nanogels, nano-micelles and nano-liposomes, carbon nanotubes, nanofibers and nanorobots, solid lipid nanoparticles (SLN), nanostructured lipid carriers (NLC) and lipid drug conjugates (LDC). Although the exact mechanism of barrier opening by nanoparticles is not known, the novel properties such as tiny size, tailored surface, better solubility, and multi-functionality of nanoparticles present the capability to interact with composite cellular functions in new ways. In fact, nanotechnology has now emerged as an area of research for invention of newer approaches for the CNS drug delivery and a revolutionary method to improve diagnosis and therapy of neurodegenerative disorders.

In this line, an overview of preparation and characterization, purification and separation, loading and delivering of nanodrugs is the first subject of this review. Different types of nanoparticle bioproducts including carbon nanotubes as a drug delivery system and also as a novel tool in neuroscience research are explored. For instance, nanodrug delivery systems like human serum albumin (HSA) nanoparticles, bovine serum albumin (BSA)-Gum Arabic (Acacia) nanoparticles and α-lactalbumin nanoparticles are explained.

The impact of nanotechnology on neuroscience and drug delivery to the central nervous system (CNS) is the subject of the second part of this review. Different mechanisms in which nanoparticles enhance the uptake of molecules both hydrophilic and hydrophobic across the BBB and the impact of various physiochemical parameters of nanoparticles on its uptake and clearance form CSF are discussed. Also nanodrugs that are being used or have potential to improve neural researches, diagnosis and therapy of neurodegenerative disorders are investigated.


Nanotechnology started by the suggestion of a famous physicist, Richard Feynman, that it should be possible, in principle, to make nanoscale machines that “arrange the atoms the way we want”, and do chemical synthesis by mechanical manipulation [9, 10]. Nanotechnologies exploit materials and devices with a functional organization that has been engineered at the nanometer scale. In a broad sense, they can be defined as the science and engineering involved in the design, syntheses, characterization, and application of materials and devices whose smallest functional organization in at least one dimension is on the nanometer scale, ranging from a few to several hundred nanometers. A nanometer is roughly the size of a molecule itself (e.g., a DNA molecule is about 2.5 nm long while a sodium atom is about 0.2 nm) [10]. Nanotechnology is not in itself a single emerging scientific discipline but rather a meeting of traditional sciences such as chemistry, physics, materials science, and biology to bring together the required collective expertise needed to develop these novel technologies.

The application of nanotechnology in cell biology and physiology enables targeted interactions at a fundamental molecular level. Nanotechnology, in the context of nanomedicine, can be defined as the technologies for making nanocarriers of therapeutics and imaging agents, nanoelectronic biosensors, nanodevices, and microdevices with nanostructures. It also covers possible future applications of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) and nanovaccinology. Unlike the definition in core nanotechnology field, which restricts the “nano” to at least 1–100 nm in one dimension, nanocarriers in the biomedical field are often referred to as particles with a dimension a few nanometers to 1000 nm [8, 11]. Although, the initial properties of nanomaterials studied were for its physical, mechanical, electrical, magnetic, chemical and biological applications, recently, attention has been geared towards its pharmaceutical application, especially in the area of drug delivery [8]. There are a few challenges in use of large size materials in drug deliveries. Some of these challenges are poor bioavailability, in vivo stability, solubility, intestinal absorption, sustained and targeted delivery to site of action, therapeutic effectiveness, generalized side effects, and plasma fluctuations of drugs (see Table 11).

The most important innovations are taking place in nanopharmocology and drug delivery which involves developing nanoscale particles or molecules to improve bioavailability. These pharmacological applications of nanotechnology include: the formation of novel nanoscopic entities [11, 27], exploring and matching specific compounds to particular patients for maximum effectiveness; and advanced pharmaceutical delivery systems and discovery of new pharmacological molecular entities; selection of pharmaceuticals for specific individuals to maximize effectiveness and minimize side effects, and delivery of pharmaceuticals to targeted locations or tissues within the body. Examples of nanomaterials include nanotubes and nanofibers, liposomes, nanoparticles, polymeric micelles, block ionomer complexes, nanogels, and dendrimers.

Nanotubes [28, 29] and nanofibers mimic tubular structures that appear in nature, such as rod shaped bacteria or viruses, microtubules, ion channels, as well as axons and dendrites. They are low-dimensional nanostructures, having a very large axial ratio. Properties of a molecule in a nanotube or nanofiber structure can be different from those in the bulk or in other nanomaterials, such as spherical nanoparticles. These materials have a large surface–volume ratio, which results in a high exposure of the material components to the surrounding environment [30]. This makes nanotubes and nanofibers promising structures for biosensing and molecular recognition [31]. However, it provides a way to control drug release through the nanotubes wall, while the large hollow area inside nanotubes provides an excellent storage for drugs and other agents [32]. Furthermore, nanotubes can be synthesized to be open-ended, which can be exploited for certain biological applications.

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) was discovered by Iijima [33] which are composed of carbon atoms arranged in hexagonal ring structures similar to graphite, with some five-membered or seven-membered rings providing the structure curvature [29, 34,35]. CNTs are compatible with biological tissues for scaffolding purposes and the charge carried by the nanotubes can be manipulated to control neurite outgrowth [36, 37]. It has also been suggested that CNTs functionalized with growth factors, such as nerve growth factor or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, can stimulate growth of neurons on the nanotube scaffold [3840]. In such application the toxicity of CNTs remains an issue that must be overcome [41, 42]. It has been reported that conductive polymer coatings for living neural cells has been generated using poly (3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) PEDOT nanotubes [43]. The electric conductivity of PEDOT was used to enhance the electrical activity of the tissue with a long range aim of treating CNS disorders, which show sensory and motor impairments. These observations suggested that nanotube and nanofiber scaffolds have potential for neuroregeneration as well as treatment of CNS trauma [27, 44]. Nanomaterials suggest a promising strategy for neuroprotection [45]. Neuroprotection is an effect that may result in salvage, recovery, or regeneration of the nervous system.

The role of nanotechnology in targeted drug delivery and imaging was discussed in many reviews and papers [46, 47]. As a step towards a realistic system, a brief overview of preparation, characterization, delivery, loading, purification and separation of nanoparticles and nanodrugs are presented herein. In next two sections the fabrication methods of nanoparticle bioproducts and also the delivery systems of nanodrugs are explained. Subsequently we go back to the CNS nanodrugs for research and therapy and the delivery systems of nanodrugs for nervous system.



The major goals in designing nanoparticles as a delivery system are to control particle size, surface properties [85] and release of pharmacologically active agents in order to achieve the site-specific action of the drug at the therapeutically optimal rate and dose regimen [86]. If nanoparticles are considered to be used as drug delivery vehicles, it depends on many factors including: (a) size of nanoparticles required; (b) inherent properties of the drug, e.g., aqueous solubility; (c) surface characteristics such as charge and permeability; (d) degree of biodegradability, biocompatibility and toxicity; (e) drug release profile desired; and (f) antigenicity of the final product. The advantages of using nanoparticles as a drug delivery system might be summarized as follow [87]:

  1. Particle size and surface characteristics of nanoparticles can be easily manipulated to achieve both passive and active drug targeting after parenteral administration.
  2. They control and sustain release of the drug during the transportation and at the site of localization, altering organ distribution of the drug and subsequent clearance of the drug so as to achieve increase in drug therapeutic efficacy and reduction in side effects.
  3. Controlled release and particle degradation characteristics can be readily modulated by the choice of matrix constituents. Drug loading is relatively high and drugs can be incorporated into the systems without any chemical reaction; this is an important factor for preserving the drug activity.
  4. Site-specific targeting can be achieved by attaching targeting ligands to surface of particles or use of magnetic guidance.
  5. The system can be used for various routes of administration including oral, nasal, parenteral, intraocular etc.


The major goals in designing nanoparticles as a delivery system are to control particle size, surface properties [85] and release of pharmacologically active agents in order to achieve the site-specific action of the drug at the therapeutically optimal rate and dose regimen [86]. If nanoparticles are considered to be used as drug delivery vehicles, it depends on many factors including: (a) size of nanoparticles required; (b) inherent properties of the drug, e.g., aqueous solubility; (c) surface characteristics such as charge and permeability; (d) degree of biodegradability, biocompatibility and toxicity; (e) drug release profile desired; and (f) antigenicity of the final product. The advantages of using nanoparticles as a drug delivery system might be summarized as follow [87]:

  1. Particle size and surface characteristics of nanoparticles can be easily manipulated to achieve both passive and active drug targeting after parenteral administration.
  2. They control and sustain release of the drug during the transportation and at the site of localization, altering organ distribution of the drug and subsequent clearance of the drug so as to achieve increase in drug therapeutic efficacy and reduction in side effects.
  3. Controlled release and particle degradation characteristics can be readily modulated by the choice of matrix constituents. Drug loading is relatively high and drugs can be incorporated into the systems without any chemical reaction; this is an important factor for preserving the drug activity.
  4. Site-specific targeting can be achieved by attaching targeting ligands to surface of particles or use of magnetic guidance.
  5. The system can be used for various routes of administration including oral, nasal, parenteral, intraocular etc.


Nanomaterials and nanoparticles can interact with biological systems at fundamental and molecular levels [100, 101]. In neuroscience, the application of nanotechnologies entails specific interactions with neurons and glial cells. Nanodevices can target the cells and glia with a high degree of specificity. This unique molecular specificity enables the nanodrugs to stimulate and interact with tissues and neurons in controlled ways, while minimizing undesirable effects. There are two main types of nervous system drugs (neurodrugs): behavioural and molecular. Behavioural neurodrugs are for the study of how different drugs affect human behaviour and human brain. These drugs are usually used for diagnosis and therapy of neurodegeneration disorders [47, 102]. Molecular neurodrugs are used for the study of neurons and their neurochemical interactions. Since for the most part, neurons in the human brain communicate with one another by releasing chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, these drugs have to target specific transmitters and receptors to have beneficial effect on neurological functions. The preparation of these two types of drugs is closely connected. Researchers are studying the interactions of different neurotransmitters [103], neurohormones [104], neuromodulators [105], enzymes [106], second messengers [107], co-transporters [108, 109], ion channels [110], and receptor proteins [111] in the central and peripheral nervous systems to develop drugs to treat many different neurological disorders, including pain [112], neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease [113] and Alzheimer’s disease [114], psychological disorders [115], addiction [116], and many others.

The blood–brain barrier significantly hinders the passage of systemically delivered therapeutics and the brain extracellular matrix limits the distribution and longevity of locally delivered agents. Nanoparticles represent a promising solution to these problems. They can cross blood-brain barrier and enter the CNS. Although the applications of nanotechnology in basic and clinical neuroscience are only in the early stages of development, partly because of the complexities associated with interacting with neural cells and the mammalian nervous system, however the early results show an impressive potential of nanotechnologies to contribute to neuroscience research [117]. One area in which nanotechnology may have a significant clinical impact in neuroscience is the selective transport and delivery of drugs and other small molecules across the blood brain barrier that cannot cross otherwise.

Examples of current research include technologies that are designed to better interact with neural cells, advanced molecular imaging technologies [118, 119], materials and hybrid molecules used in neural regeneration [120], neuroprotection [121], and targeted delivery of drugs and small molecules across the blood–brain barrier [122, 123]. Among all these modern methods of drug delivery to the central nervous system (CNS), the design and application of bionanotechnologies aimed at the CNS provide revolutionary new approaches for studying cell and molecular biology and physiology. The successful and meaningful development of bionanotechnologies designed to interact with the CNS as research or clinical tools require an understanding of the relevant neurophysiology and neuropathology, an appreciation of the inherent ‘nanoscale’ structure of the CNS, and an understanding of the relevant chemistry and materials science and engineering. At nanoscale, consideration of individual molecules and interacting groups of molecules in relation to the bulk macroscopic properties of the material or device becomes important, since it is control over the fundamental molecular structure that allows control over the macroscopic chemical and physical properties [124]. Applications to neuroscience and physiology imply materials and devices designed to interact with the body at subcellular (i.e., molecular) scales with a high degree of specificity. This can potentially translate into targeted cellular and tissue-specific clinical applications designed to achieve maximal therapeutic affects with minimal side effects.

It started with controlled release strategy and the development of miniaturized delivery systems [125] and continued by the application of albumin nanoparticles for the first time in the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution in Baltimore [126]. Other nanoconstructs such as drug-polymer conjugates were first proposed in the 1970s [127] and developed pre-clinically in the 1980s [128]. Prof. Kreuter [129] proposed a definition of polymeric nanoparticles for pharmaceutical purposes for the first time that later was adopted by the Encyclopaedia of Pharmaceutical Technology [130] and the Encyclopedia of nanotechnology [131]. Today, more than 25 nanomedicines have already been approved for human use [102]. Usually the application of nanodrugs to neuroscience is divided into two parts: application in basic neuroscience [124], and in clinical neuroscience [27].

The development of nanotechnology products may play an important role in adding a new group of therapeutics to the products of pharmaceutical companies [132]. Nanotechnology enhances (1) delivery of poorly water-soluble drugs; (2) delivery of large macromolecule drugs to intracellular sites of action; (3) targeted delivery of drugs in a cell- or tissue-specific manner; (4) transcytosis of drugs across tight epithelial and endothelial barriers; (5) co-delivery of two or more drugs or therapeutic modality for combination therapy; (6) visualization of sites of drug delivery by combining therapeutic agents with imaging modalities; and (7) real-time read on the in vivo efficacy of a therapeutic agent [133]. Additionally, the manufacturing complexity of nanotechnology therapeutics may also create a significant hurdle for generic drug companies to develop equivalent therapeutics readily [132].


Safe, site-specific, and efficient delivery of compounds to CNS disease sites remains a singular goal in achieving optimal therapeutic outcomes to combat neurodegenerative diseases. Treatment of CNS disorders by systemic administration or local delivery of drugs is currently inefficient in many cases. Furthermore, clinical neuroscience faces great challenges due to the extremely heterogeneous cellular and molecular environment and the complexities of the brain’s anatomical and functional “wiring” and associated information processing [224]. However, the emergence of nanotechnology provides hope that it will revolutionize diagnosis and treatment of CNS disorders. Neurodegenerative diseases are usually linked to a loss of brain and spinal cord cells. For example, the neuronal damage in AD and PD is associated with abnormal protein processing and accumulation and results in gradual cognitive and motor deterioration [225].





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Disease related changes in proteomics, protein folding, protein-protein interaction

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP



Frankenstein Proteins Stitched Together by Scientists

The Frankenstein monster, stitched together from disparate body parts, proved to be an abomination, but stitched together proteins may fare better. They may, for example, serve specific purposes in medicine, research, and industry. At least, that’s the ambition of scientists based at the University of North Carolina. They have developed a computational protocol called SEWING that builds new proteins from connected or disconnected pieces of existing structures. [Wikipedia]

Unlike Victor Frankenstein, who betrayed Promethean ambition when he sewed together his infamous creature, today’s biochemists are relatively modest. Rather than defy nature, they emulate it. For example, at the University of North Carolina (UNC), researchers have taken inspiration from natural evolutionary mechanisms to develop a technique called SEWING—Structure Extension With Native-substructure Graphs. SEWING is a computational protocol that describes how to stitch together new proteins from connected or disconnected pieces of existing structures.

“We can now begin to think about engineering proteins to do things that nothing else is capable of doing,” said UNC’s Brian Kuhlman, Ph.D. “The structure of a protein determines its function, so if we are going to learn how to design new functions, we have to learn how to design new structures. Our study is a critical step in that direction and provides tools for creating proteins that haven’t been seen before in nature.”

Traditionally, researchers have used computational protein design to recreate in the laboratory what already exists in the natural world. In recent years, their focus has shifted toward inventing novel proteins with new functionality. These design projects all start with a specific structural “blueprint” in mind, and as a result are limited. Dr. Kuhlman and his colleagues, however, believe that by removing the limitations of a predetermined blueprint and taking cues from evolution they can more easily create functional proteins.

Dr. Kuhlman’s UNC team developed a protein design approach that emulates natural mechanisms for shuffling tertiary structures such as pleats, coils, and furrows. Putting the approach into action, the UNC team mapped 50,000 stitched together proteins on the computer, and then it produced 21 promising structures in the laboratory. Details of this work appeared May 6 in the journal Science, in an article entitled, “Design of Structurally Distinct Proteins Using Strategies Inspired by Evolution.”

“Helical proteins designed with SEWING contain structural features absent from other de novo designed proteins and, in some cases, remain folded at more than 100°C,” wrote the authors. “High-resolution structures of the designed proteins CA01 and DA05R1 were solved by x-ray crystallography (2.2 angstrom resolution) and nuclear magnetic resonance, respectively, and there was excellent agreement with the design models.”

Essentially, the UNC scientists confirmed that the proteins they had synthesized contained the unique structural varieties that had been designed on the computer. The UNC scientists also determined that the structures they had created had new surface and pocket features. Such features, they noted, provide potential binding sites for ligands or macromolecules.

“We were excited that some had clefts or grooves on the surface, regions that naturally occurring proteins use for binding other proteins,” said the Science article’s first author, Tim M. Jacobs, Ph.D., a former graduate student in Dr. Kuhlman’s laboratory. “That’s important because if we wanted to create a protein that can act as a biosensor to detect a certain metabolite in the body, either for diagnostic or research purposes, it would need to have these grooves. Likewise, if we wanted to develop novel therapeutics, they would also need to attach to specific proteins.”

Currently, the UNC researchers are using SEWING to create proteins that can bind to several other proteins at a time. Many of the most important proteins are such multitaskers, including the blood protein hemoglobin.


Histone Mutation Deranges DNA Methylation to Cause Cancer

In some cancers, including chondroblastoma and a rare form of childhood sarcoma, a mutation in histone H3 reduces global levels of methylation (dark areas) in tumor cells but not in normal cells (arrowhead). The mutation locks the cells in a proliferative state to promote tumor development. [Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics at The Rockefeller University]

They have been called oncohistones, the mutated histones that are known to accompany certain pediatric cancers. Despite their suggestive moniker, oncohistones have kept their oncogenic secrets. For example, it has been unclear whether oncohistones are able to cause cancer on their own, or whether they need to act in concert with additional DNA mutations, that is, mutations other than those affecting histone structures.

While oncohistone mechanisms remain poorly understood, this particular question—the oncogenicity of lone oncohistones—has been resolved, at least in part. According to researchers based at The Rockefeller University, a change to the structure of a histone can trigger a tumor on its own.

This finding appeared May 13 in the journal Science, in an article entitled, “Histone H3K36 Mutations Promote Sarcomagenesis Through Altered Histone Methylation Landscape.” The article describes the Rockefeller team’s study of a histone protein called H3, which has been found in about 95% of samples of chondoblastoma, a benign tumor that arises in cartilage, typically during adolescence.

The Rockefeller scientists found that the H3 lysine 36–to–methionine (H3K36M) mutation impairs the differentiation of mesenchymal progenitor cells and generates undifferentiated sarcoma in vivo.

After the scientists inserted the H3 histone mutation into mouse mesenchymal progenitor cells (MPCs)—which generate cartilage, bone, and fat—they watched these cells lose the ability to differentiate in the lab. Next, the scientists injected the mutant cells into living mice, and the animals developed the tumors rich in MPCs, known as an undifferentiated sarcoma. Finally, the researchers tried to understand how the mutation causes the tumors to develop.

The scientists determined that H3K36M mutant nucleosomes inhibit the enzymatic activities of several H3K36 methyltransferases.

“Depleting H3K36 methyltransferases, or expressing an H3K36I mutant that similarly inhibits H3K36 methylation, is sufficient to phenocopy the H3K36M mutation,” the authors of the Science study wrote. “After the loss of H3K36 methylation, a genome-wide gain in H3K27 methylation leads to a redistribution of polycomb repressive complex 1 and de-repression of its target genes known to block mesenchymal differentiation.”

Essentially, when the H3K36M mutation occurs, the cell becomes locked in a proliferative state—meaning it divides constantly, leading to tumors. Specifically, the mutation inhibits enzymes that normally tag the histone with chemical groups known as methyls, allowing genes to be expressed normally.

In response to this lack of modification, another part of the histone becomes overmodified, or tagged with too many methyl groups. “This leads to an overall resetting of the landscape of chromatin, the complex of DNA and its associated factors, including histones,” explained co-author Peter Lewis, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former postdoctoral fellow in laboratory of C. David Allis, Ph.D., a professor at Rockefeller.

The finding—that a “resetting” of the chromatin landscape can lock the cell into a proliferative state—suggests that researchers should be on the hunt for more mutations in histones that might be driving tumors. For their part, the Rockefeller researchers are trying to learn more about how this specific mutation in histone H3 causes tumors to develop.

“We want to know which pathways cause the mesenchymal progenitor cells that carry the mutation to continue to divide, and not differentiate into the bone, fat, and cartilage cells they are destined to become,” said co-author Chao Lu, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Allis lab.

Once researchers understand more about these pathways, added Dr. Lewis, they can consider ways of blocking them with drugs, particularly in tumors such as MPC-rich sarcomas—which, unlike chondroblastoma, can be deadly. In fact, drugs that block these pathways may already exist and may even be in use for other types of cancers.

“One long-term goal of our collaborative team is to better understand fundamental mechanisms that drive these processes, with the hope of providing new therapeutic approaches,” concluded Dr. Allis.


Histone H3K36 mutations promote sarcomagenesis through altered histone methylation landscape

Chao Lu, Siddhant U. Jain, Dominik Hoelper, …, C. David Allis1,, Nada Jabado,, Peter W. Lewis,
Science  13 May 2016; 352(6287):844-849

An oncohistone deranges inhibitory chromatin

Missense mutations (that change one amino acid for another) in histone H3 can produce a so-called oncohistone and are found in a number of pediatric cancers. For example, the lysine-36–to-methionine (K36M) mutation is seen in almost all chondroblastomas. Lu et al. show that K36M mutant histones are oncogenic, and they inhibit the normal methylation of this same residue in wild-type H3 histones. The mutant histones also interfere with the normal development of bone-related cells and the deposition of inhibitory chromatin marks.

Science, this issue p. 844

Several types of pediatric cancers reportedly contain high-frequency missense mutations in histone H3, yet the underlying oncogenic mechanism remains poorly characterized. Here we report that the H3 lysine 36–to–methionine (H3K36M) mutation impairs the differentiation of mesenchymal progenitor cells and generates undifferentiated sarcoma in vivo. H3K36M mutant nucleosomes inhibit the enzymatic activities of several H3K36 methyltransferases. Depleting H3K36 methyltransferases, or expressing an H3K36I mutant that similarly inhibits H3K36 methylation, is sufficient to phenocopy the H3K36M mutation. After the loss of H3K36 methylation, a genome-wide gain in H3K27 methylation leads to a redistribution of polycomb repressive complex 1 and de-repression of its target genes known to block mesenchymal differentiation. Our findings are mirrored in human undifferentiated sarcomas in which novel K36M/I mutations in H3.1 are identified.


Mitochondria? We Don’t Need No Stinking Mitochondria!
Diagram comparing typical eukaryotic cell to the newly discovered mitochondria-free organism. [Karnkowska et al., 2016, Current Biology 26, 1–11]
  • The organelle that produces a significant portion of energy for eukaryotic cells would seemingly be indispensable, yet over the years, a number of organisms have been discovered that challenge that biological pretense. However, these so-called amitochondrial species may lack a defined organelle, but they still retain some residual functions of their mitochondria-containing brethren. Even the intestinal eukaryotic parasite Giardia intestinalis, which was for many years considered to be mitochondria-free, was proven recently to contain a considerably shriveled version of the organelle.
  • Now, an international group of scientists has released results from a new study that challenges the notion that mitochondria are essential for eukaryotes—discovering an organism that resides in the gut of chinchillas that contains absolutely no trace of mitochondria at all.
  • “In low-oxygen environments, eukaryotes often possess a reduced form of the mitochondrion, but it was believed that some of the mitochondrial functions are so essential that these organelles are indispensable for their life,” explained lead study author Anna Karnkowska, Ph.D., visiting scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “We have characterized a eukaryotic microbe which indeed possesses no mitochondrion at all.”


Mysterious Eukaryote Missing Mitochondria

Researchers uncover the first example of a eukaryotic organism that lacks the organelles.

By Anna Azvolinsky | May 12, 2016


Scientists have long thought that mitochondria—organelles responsible for energy generation—are an essential and defining feature of a eukaryotic cell. Now, researchers from Charles University in Prague and their colleagues are challenging this notion with their discovery of a eukaryotic organism,Monocercomonoides species PA203, which lacks mitochondria. The team’s phylogenetic analysis, published today (May 12) in Current Biology,suggests that Monocercomonoides—which belong to the Oxymonadida group of protozoa and live in low-oxygen environmentsdid have mitochondria at one point, but eventually lost the organelles.

“This is quite a groundbreaking discovery,” said Thijs Ettema, who studies microbial genome evolution at Uppsala University in Sweden and was not involved in the work.

“This study shows that mitochondria are not so central for all lineages of living eukaryotes,” Toni Gabaldonof the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, who also was not involved in the work, wrote in an email to The Scientist. “Yet, this mitochondrial-devoid, single-cell eukaryote is as complex as other eukaryotic cells in almost any other aspect of cellular complexity.”

Charles University’s Vladimir Hampl studies the evolution of protists. Along with Anna Karnkowska and colleagues, Hampl decided to sequence the genome of Monocercomonoides, a little-studied protist that lives in the digestive tracts of vertebrates. The 75-megabase genome—the first of an oxymonad—did not contain any conserved genes found on mitochondrial genomes of other eukaryotes, the researchers found. It also did not contain any nuclear genes associated with mitochondrial functions.

“It was surprising and for a long time, we didn’t believe that the [mitochondria-associated genes were really not there]. We thought we were missing something,” Hampl told The Scientist. “But when the data kept accumulating, we switched to the hypothesis that this organism really didn’t have mitochondria.”

Because researchers have previously not found examples of eukaryotes without some form of mitochondria, the current theory of the origin of eukaryotes poses that the appearance of mitochondria was crucial to the identity of these organisms.

“We now view these mitochondria-like organelles as a continuum from full mitochondria to very small . Some anaerobic protists, for example, have only pared down versions of mitochondria, such as hydrogenosomes and mitosomes, which lack a mitochondrial genome. But these mitochondrion-like organelles perform essential functions of the iron-sulfur cluster assembly pathway, which is known to be conserved in virtually all eukaryotic organisms studied to date.

Yet, in their analysis, the researchers found no evidence of the presence of any components of this mitochondrial pathway.

Like the scaling down of mitochondria into mitosomes in some organisms, the ancestors of modernMonocercomonoides once had mitochondria. “Because this organism is phylogenetically nested among relatives that had conventional mitochondria, this is most likely a secondary adaptation,” said Michael Gray, a biochemist who studies mitochondria at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and was not involved in the study. According to Gray, the finding of a mitochondria-deficient eukaryote does not mean that the organelles did not play a major role in the evolution of eukaryotic cells.

To be sure they were not missing mitochondrial proteins, Hampl’s team also searched for potential mitochondrial protein homologs of other anaerobic species, and for signature sequences of a range of known mitochondrial proteins. While similar searches with other species uncovered a few mitochondrial proteins, the team’s analysis of Monocercomonoides came up empty.

“The data is very complete,” said Ettema. “It is difficult to prove the absence of something but [these authors] do a convincing job.”

To form the essential iron-sulfur clusters, the team discovered that Monocercomonoides use a sulfur mobilization system found in the cytosol, and that an ancestor of the organism acquired this system by lateral gene transfer from bacteria. This cytosolic, compensating system allowed Monocercomonoides to lose the otherwise essential iron-sulfur cluster-forming pathway in the mitochondrion, the team proposed.

“This work shows the great evolutionary plasticity of the eukaryotic cell,” said Karnkowska, who participated in the study while she was a postdoc at Charles University. Karnkowska, who is now a visiting researcher at the University of British Columbia in Canada, added: “This is a striking example of how far the evolution of a eukaryotic cell can go that was beyond our expectations.”

“The results highlight how many surprises may await us in the poorly studied eukaryotic phyla that live in under-explored environments,” Gabaldon said.

Ettema agreed. “Now that we’ve found one, we need to look at the bigger picture and see if there are other examples of eukaryotes that have lost their mitochondria, to understand how adaptable eukaryotes are.”

  1. Karnkowska et al., “A eukaryote without a mitochondrial organelle,” Current Biology,doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.03.053, 2016.

organellesmitochondriagenetics & genomics and evolution


A Eukaryote without a Mitochondrial Organelle

Anna Karnkowska,  Vojtěch Vacek,  Zuzana Zubáčová,…,  Čestmír Vlček,  Vladimír HamplDOI:  Article Info

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  • Monocercomonoides sp. is a eukaryotic microorganism with no mitochondria
  • •The complete absence of mitochondria is a secondary loss, not an ancestral feature
  • •The essential mitochondrial ISC pathway was replaced by a bacterial SUF system

The presence of mitochondria and related organelles in every studied eukaryote supports the view that mitochondria are essential cellular components. Here, we report the genome sequence of a microbial eukaryote, the oxymonad Monocercomonoides sp., which revealed that this organism lacks all hallmark mitochondrial proteins. Crucially, the mitochondrial iron-sulfur cluster assembly pathway, thought to be conserved in virtually all eukaryotic cells, has been replaced by a cytosolic sulfur mobilization system (SUF) acquired by lateral gene transfer from bacteria. In the context of eukaryotic phylogeny, our data suggest that Monocercomonoides is not primitively amitochondrial but has lost the mitochondrion secondarily. This is the first example of a eukaryote lacking any form of a mitochondrion, demonstrating that this organelle is not absolutely essential for the viability of a eukaryotic cell.


HIV Particles Used to Trap Intact Mammalian Protein Complexes

Belgian scientists from VIB and UGent developed Virotrap, a viral particle sorting approach for purifying protein complexes under native conditions.

This method catches a bait protein together with its associated protein partners in virus-like particles that are budded from human cells. Like this, cell lysis is not needed and protein complexes are preserved during purification.

With his feet in both a proteomics lab and an interactomics lab, VIB/UGent professor Sven Eyckerman is well aware of the shortcomings of conventional approaches to analyze protein complexes. The lysis conditions required in mass spectrometry–based strategies to break open cell membranes often affect protein-protein interactions. “The first step in a classical study on protein complexes essentially turns the highly organized cellular structure into a big messy soup”, Eyckerman explains.

Inspired by virus biology, Eyckerman came up with a creative solution. “We used the natural process of HIV particle formation to our benefit by hacking a completely safe form of the virus to abduct intact protein machines from the cell.” It is well known that the HIV virus captures a number of host proteins during its particle formation. By fusing a bait protein to the HIV-1 GAG protein, interaction partners become trapped within virus-like particles that bud from mammalian cells. Standard proteomic approaches are used next to reveal the content of these particles. Fittingly, the team named the method ‘Virotrap’.

The Virotrap approach is exceptional as protein networks can be characterized under natural conditions. By trapping protein complexes in the protective environment of a virus-like shell, the intact complexes are preserved during the purification process. The researchers showed the method was suitable for detection of known binary interactions as well as mass spectrometry-based identification of novel protein partners.

Virotrap is a textbook example of bringing research teams with complementary expertise together. Cross-pollination with the labs of Jan Tavernier (VIB/UGent) and Kris Gevaert (VIB/UGent) enabled the development of this platform.

Jan Tavernier: “Virotrap represents a new concept in co-complex analysis wherein complex stability is physically guaranteed by a protective, physical structure. It is complementary to the arsenal of existing interactomics methods, but also holds potential for other fields, like drug target characterization. We also developed a small molecule-variant of Virotrap that could successfully trap protein partners for small molecule baits.”

Kris Gevaert: “Virotrap can also impact our understanding of disease pathways. We were actually surprised to see that this virus-based system could be used to study antiviral pathways, like Toll-like receptor signaling. Understanding these protein machines in their natural environment is essential if we want to modulate their activity in pathology.“


Trapping mammalian protein complexes in viral particles

Sven Eyckerman, Kevin Titeca, …Kris GevaertJan Tavernier
Nature Communications Apr 2016; 7(11416)

Cell lysis is an inevitable step in classical mass spectrometry–based strategies to analyse protein complexes. Complementary lysis conditions, in situ cross-linking strategies and proximal labelling techniques are currently used to reduce lysis effects on the protein complex. We have developed Virotrap, a viral particle sorting approach that obviates the need for cell homogenization and preserves the protein complexes during purification. By fusing a bait protein to the HIV-1 GAG protein, we show that interaction partners become trapped within virus-like particles (VLPs) that bud from mammalian cells. Using an efficient VLP enrichment protocol, Virotrap allows the detection of known binary interactions and MS-based identification of novel protein partners as well. In addition, we show the identification of stimulus-dependent interactions and demonstrate trapping of protein partners for small molecules. Virotrap constitutes an elegant complementary approach to the arsenal of methods to study protein complexes.

Proteins mostly exert their function within supramolecular complexes. Strategies for detecting protein–protein interactions (PPIs) can be roughly divided into genetic systems1 and co-purification strategies combined with mass spectrometry (MS) analysis (for example, AP–MS)2. The latter approaches typically require cell or tissue homogenization using detergents, followed by capture of the protein complex using affinity tags3 or specific antibodies4. The protein complexes extracted from this ‘soup’ of constituents are then subjected to several washing steps before actual analysis by trypsin digestion and liquid chromatography–MS/MS analysis. Such lysis and purification protocols are typically empirical and have mostly been optimized using model interactions in single labs. In fact, lysis conditions can profoundly affect the number of both specific and nonspecific proteins that are identified in a typical AP–MS set-up. Indeed, recent studies using the nuclear pore complex as a model protein complex describe optimization of purifications for the different proteins in the complex by examining 96 different conditions5. Nevertheless, for new purifications, it remains hard to correctly estimate the loss of factors in a standard AP–MS experiment due to washing and dilution effects during treatments (that is, false negatives). These considerations have pushed the concept of stabilizing PPIs before the actual homogenization step. A classical approach involves cross-linking with simple reagents (for example, formaldehyde) or with more advanced isotope-labelled cross-linkers (reviewed in ref. 2). However, experimental challenges such as cell permeability and reactivity still preclude the widespread use of cross-linking agents. Moreover, MS-generated spectra of cross-linked peptides are notoriously difficult to identify correctly. A recent lysis-independent solution involves the expression of a bait protein fused to a promiscuous biotin ligase, which results in labelling of proteins proximal to the activity of the enzyme-tagged bait protein6. When compared with AP–MS, this BioID approach delivers a complementary set of candidate proteins, including novel interaction partners78. Such particular studies clearly underscore the need for complementary approaches in the co-complex strategies.

The evolutionary stress on viruses promoted highly condensed coding of information and maximal functionality for small genomes. Accordingly, for HIV-1 it is sufficient to express a single protein, the p55 GAG protein, for efficient production of virus-like particles (VLPs) from cells910. This protein is highly mobile before its accumulation in cholesterol-rich regions of the membrane, where multimerization initiates the budding process11. A total of 4,000–5,000 GAG molecules is required to form a single particle of about 145 nm (ref. 12). Both VLPs and mature viruses contain a number of host proteins that are recruited by binding to viral proteins. These proteins can either contribute to the infectivity (for example, Cyclophilin/FKBPA13) or act as antiviral proteins preventing the spreading of the virus (for example, APOBEC proteins14).

We here describe the development and application of Virotrap, an elegant co-purification strategy based on the trapping of a bait protein together with its associated protein partners in VLPs that are budded from the cell. After enrichment, these particles can be analysed by targeted (for example, western blotting) or unbiased approaches (MS-based proteomics). Virotrap allows detection of known binary PPIs, analysis of protein complexes and their dynamics, and readily detects protein binders for small molecules.

Concept of the Virotrap system

Classical AP–MS approaches rely on cell homogenization to access protein complexes, a step that can vary significantly with the lysis conditions (detergents, salt concentrations, pH conditions and so on)5. To eliminate the homogenization step in AP–MS, we reasoned that incorporation of a protein complex inside a secreted VLP traps the interaction partners under native conditions and protects them during further purification. We thus explored the possibility of protein complex packaging by the expression of GAG-bait protein chimeras (Fig. 1) as expression of GAG results in the release of VLPs from the cells910. As a first PPI pair to evaluate this concept, we selected the HRAS protein as a bait combined with the RAF1 prey protein. We were able to specifically detect the HRAS–RAF1 interaction following enrichment of VLPs via ultracentrifugation (Supplementary Fig. 1a). To prevent tedious ultracentrifugation steps, we designed a novel single-step protocol wherein we co-express the vesicular stomatitis virus glycoprotein (VSV-G) together with a tagged version of this glycoprotein in addition to the GAG bait and prey. Both tagged and untagged VSV-G proteins are probably presented as trimers on the surface of the VLPs, allowing efficient antibody-based recovery from large volumes. The HRAS–RAF1 interaction was confirmed using this single-step protocol (Supplementary Fig. 1b). No associations with unrelated bait or prey proteins were observed for both protocols.

Figure 1: Schematic representation of the Virotrap strategy.


Expression of a GAG-bait fusion protein (1) results in submembrane multimerization (2) and subsequent budding of VLPs from cells (3). Interaction partners of the bait protein are also trapped within these VLPs and can be identified after purification by western blotting or MS analysis (4).

Virotrap for the detection of binary interactions

We next explored the reciprocal detection of a set of PPI pairs, which were selected based on published evidence and cytosolic localization15. After single-step purification and western blot analysis, we could readily detect reciprocal interactions between CDK2 and CKS1B, LCP2 and GRAP2, and S100A1 and S100B (Fig. 2a). Only for the LCP2 prey we observed nonspecific association with an irrelevant bait construct. However, the particle levels of the GRAP2 bait were substantially lower as compared with those of the GAG control construct (GAG protein levels in VLPs; Fig. 2a, second panel of the LCP2 prey). After quantification of the intensities of bait and prey proteins and normalization of prey levels using bait levels, we observed a strong enrichment for the GAG-GRAP2 bait (Supplementary Fig. 2).


Virotrap for unbiased discovery of novel interactions

For the detection of novel interaction partners, we scaled up VLP production and purification protocols (Supplementary Fig. 5 and Supplementary Note 1 for an overview of the protocol) and investigated protein partners trapped using the following bait proteins: Fas-associated via death domain (FADD), A20 (TNFAIP3), nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB) essential modifier (IKBKG), TRAF family member-associated NF-κB activator (TANK), MYD88 and ring finger protein 41 (RNF41). To obtain specific interactors from the lists of identified proteins, we challenged the data with a combined protein list of 19 unrelated Virotrap experiments (Supplementary Table 1 for an overview). Figure 3 shows the design and the list of candidate interactors obtained after removal of all proteins that were found in the 19 control samples (including removal of proteins from the control list identified with a single peptide). The remaining list of confident protein identifications (identified with at least two peptides in at least two biological repeats) reveals both known and novel candidate interaction partners. All candidate interactors including single peptide protein identifications are given in Supplementary Data 2 and also include recurrent protein identifications of known interactors based on a single peptide; for example, CASP8 for FADD and TANK for NEMO. Using alternative methods, we confirmed the interaction between A20 and FADD, and the associations with transmembrane proteins (insulin receptor and insulin-like growth factor receptor 1) that were captured using RNF41 as a bait (Supplementary Fig. 6). To address the use of Virotrap for the detection of dynamic interactions, we activated the NF-κB pathway via the tumour necrosis factor (TNF) receptor (TNFRSF1A) using TNFα (TNF) and performed Virotrap analysis using A20 as bait (Fig. 3). This resulted in the additional enrichment of receptor-interacting kinase (RIPK1), TNFR1-associated via death domain (TRADD), TNFRSF1A and TNF itself, confirming the expected activated complex20.

Figure 3: Use of Virotrap for unbiased interactome analysis

Figure 4: Use of Virotrap for detection of protein partners of small molecules.


Lysis conditions used in AP–MS strategies are critical for the preservation of protein complexes. A multitude of lysis conditions have been described, culminating in a recent report where protein complex stability was assessed under 96 lysis/purification protocols5. Moreover, the authors suggest to optimize the conditions for every complex, implying an important workload for researchers embarking on protein complex analysis using classical AP–MS. As lysis results in a profound change of the subcellular context and significantly alters the concentration of proteins, loss of complex integrity during a classical AP–MS protocol can be expected. A clear evolution towards ‘lysis-independent’ approaches in the co-complex analysis field is evident with the introduction of BioID6 and APEX25 where proximal proteins, including proteins residing in the complex, are labelled with biotin by an enzymatic activity fused to a bait protein. A side-by-side comparison between classical AP–MS and BioID showed overlapping and unique candidate binding proteins for both approaches78, supporting the notion that complementary methods are needed to provide a comprehensive view on protein complexes. This has also been clearly demonstrated for binary approaches15 and is a logical consequence of the heterogenic nature underlying PPIs (binding mechanism, requirement for posttranslational modifications, location, affinity and so on).

In this report, we explore an alternative, yet complementary method to isolate protein complexes without interfering with cellular integrity. By trapping protein complexes in the protective environment of a virus-like shell, the intact complexes are preserved during the purification process. This constitutes a new concept in co-complex analysis wherein complex stability is physically guaranteed by a protective, physical structure. A comparison of our Virotrap approach with AP–MS shows complementary data, with specific false positives and false negatives for both methods (Supplementary Fig. 7).

The current implementation of the Virotrap platform implies the use of a GAG-bait construct resulting in considerable expression of the bait protein. Different strategies are currently pursued to reduce bait expression including co-expression of a native GAG protein together with the GAG-bait protein, not only reducing bait expression but also creating more ‘space’ in the particles potentially accommodating larger bait protein complexes. Nevertheless, the presence of the bait on the forming GAG scaffold creates an intracellular affinity matrix (comparable to the early in vitro affinity columns for purification of interaction partners from lysates26) that has the potential to compete with endogenous complexes by avidity effects. This avidity effect is a powerful mechanism that aids in the recruitment of cyclophilin to GAG27, a well-known weak interaction (Kd=16 μM (ref. 28)) detectable as a background association in the Virotrap system. Although background binding may be increased by elevated bait expression, weaker associations are readily detectable (for example, MAL—MYD88-binding study; Fig. 2c).

The size of Virotrap particles (around 145 nm) suggests limitations in the size of the protein complex that can be accommodated in the particles. Further experimentation is required to define the maximum size of proteins or the number of protein complexes that can be trapped inside the particles.


In conclusion, Virotrap captures significant parts of known interactomes and reveals new interactions. This cell lysis-free approach purifies protein complexes under native conditions and thus provides a powerful method to complement AP–MS or other PPI data. Future improvements of the system include strategies to reduce bait expression to more physiological levels and application of advanced data analysis options to filter out background. These developments can further aid in the deployment of Virotrap as a powerful extension of the current co-complex technology arsenal.


New Autism Blood Biomarker Identified

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have identified a blood biomarker that may aid in earlier diagnosis of children with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD


In a recent edition of Scientific Reports, UT Southwestern researchers reported on the identification of a blood biomarker that could distinguish the majority of ASD study participants versus a control group of similar age range. In addition, the biomarker was significantly correlated with the level of communication impairment, suggesting that the blood test may give insight into ASD severity.

“Numerous investigators have long sought a biomarker for ASD,” said Dr. Dwight German, study senior author and Professor of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern. “The blood biomarker reported here along with others we are testing can represent a useful test with over 80 percent accuracy in identifying ASD.”

ASD1 –  was 66 percent accurate in diagnosing ASD. When combined with thyroid stimulating hormone level measurements, the ASD1-binding biomarker was 73 percent accurate at diagnosis


A Search for Blood Biomarkers for Autism: Peptoids

Sayed ZamanUmar Yazdani,…, Laura Hewitson & Dwight C. German
Scientific Reports 2016; 6(19164)

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction and communication, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. In order to identify individuals with ASD and initiate interventions at the earliest possible age, biomarkers for the disorder are desirable. Research findings have identified widespread changes in the immune system in children with autism, at both systemic and cellular levels. In an attempt to find candidate antibody biomarkers for ASD, highly complex libraries of peptoids (oligo-N-substituted glycines) were screened for compounds that preferentially bind IgG from boys with ASD over typically developing (TD) boys. Unexpectedly, many peptoids were identified that preferentially bound IgG from TD boys. One of these peptoids was studied further and found to bind significantly higher levels (>2-fold) of the IgG1 subtype in serum from TD boys (n = 60) compared to ASD boys (n = 74), as well as compared to older adult males (n = 53). Together these data suggest that ASD boys have reduced levels (>50%) of an IgG1 antibody, which resembles the level found normally with advanced age. In this discovery study, the ASD1 peptoid was 66% accurate in predicting ASD.


Peptoid libraries have been used previously to search for autoantibodies for neurodegenerative diseases19 and for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)21. In the case of SLE, peptoids were identified that could identify subjects with the disease and related syndromes with moderate sensitivity (70%) and excellent specificity (97.5%). Peptoids were used to measure IgG levels from both healthy subjects and SLE patients. Binding to the SLE-peptoid was significantly higher in SLE patients vs. healthy controls. The IgG bound to the SLE-peptoid was found to react with several autoantigens, suggesting that the peptoids are capable of interacting with multiple, structurally similar molecules. These data indicate that IgG binding to peptoids can identify subjects with high levels of pathogenic autoantibodies vs. a single antibody.

In the present study, the ASD1 peptoid binds significantly lower levels of IgG1 in ASD males vs. TD males. This finding suggests that the ASD1 peptoid recognizes antibody(-ies) of an IgG1 subtype that is (are) significantly lower in abundance in the ASD males vs. TD males. Although a previous study14 has demonstrated lower levels of plasma IgG in ASD vs. TD children, here, we additionally quantified serum IgG levels in our individuals and found no difference in IgG between the two groups (data not shown). Furthermore, our IgG levels did not correlate with ASD1 binding levels, indicating that ASD1 does not bind IgG generically, and that the peptoid’s ability to differentiate between ASD and TD males is related to a specific antibody(-ies).

ASD subjects underwent a diagnostic evaluation using the ADOS and ADI-R, and application of the DSM-IV criteria prior to study inclusion. Only those subjects with a diagnosis of Autistic Disorder were included in the study. The ADOS is a semi-structured observation of a child’s behavior that allows examiners to observe the three core domains of ASD symptoms: reciprocal social interaction, communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviors1. When ADOS subdomain scores were compared with peptoid binding, the only significant relationship was with Social Interaction. However, the positive correlation would suggest that lower peptoid binding is associated with better social interaction, not poorer social interaction as anticipated.

The ADI-R is a structured parental interview that measures the core features of ASD symptoms in the areas of reciprocal social interaction, communication and language, and patterns of behavior. Of the three ADI-R subdomains, only the Communication domain was related to ASD1 peptoid binding, and this correlation was negative suggesting that low peptoid binding is associated with greater communication problems. These latter data are similar to the findings of Heuer et al.14 who found that children with autism with low levels of plasma IgG have high scores on the Aberrant Behavior Checklist (p < 0.0001). Thus, peptoid binding to IgG1 may be useful as a severity marker for ASD allowing for further characterization of individuals, but further research is needed.

It is interesting that in serum samples from older men, the ASD1 binding is similar to that in the ASD boys. This is consistent with the observation that with aging there is a reduction in the strength of the immune system, and the changes are gender-specific25. Recent studies using parabiosis26, in which blood from young mice reverse age-related impairments in cognitive function and synaptic plasticity in old mice, reveal that blood constituents from young subjects may contain important substances for maintaining neuronal functions. Work is in progress to identify the antibody/antibodies that are differentially binding to the ASD1 peptoid, which appear as a single band on the electrophoresis gel (Fig. 4).


The ADI-R is a structured parental interview that measures the core features of ASD symptoms in the areas of reciprocal social interaction, communication and language, and patterns of behavior. Of the three ADI-R subdomains, only the Communication domain was related to ASD1 peptoid binding, and this correlation was negative suggesting that low peptoid binding is associated with greater communication problems. These latter data are similar to the findings of Heuer et al.14 who found that children with autism with low levels of plasma IgG have high scores on the Aberrant Behavior Checklist (p < 0.0001). Thus, peptoid binding to IgG1 may be useful as a severity marker for ASD allowing for further characterization of individuals, but further research is needed.


  • Titration of IgG binding to ASD1 using serum pooled from 10 TD males and 10 ASD males demonstrates ASD1’s ability to differentiate between the two groups. (B)Detecting IgG1 subclass instead of total IgG amplifies this differentiation. (C) IgG1 binding of individual ASD (n=74) and TD (n=60) male serum samples (1:100 dilution) to ASD1 significantly differs with TD>ASD. In addition, IgG1 binding of older adult male (AM) serum samples (n=53) to ASD1 is significantly lower than TD males, and not different from ASD males. The three groups were compared with a Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA, H = 10.1781, p<0.006. **p<0.005. Error bars show SEM. (D) Receiver-operating characteristic curve for ASD1’s ability to discriminate between ASD and TD males.


Association between peptoid binding and ADOS and ADI-R subdomains

Higher scores in any domain on the ADOS and ADI-R are indicative of more abnormal behaviors and/or symptoms. Among ADOS subdomains, there was no significant relationship between Communication and peptoid binding (z = 0.04, p = 0.966), Communication + Social interaction (z = 1.53, p = 0.127), or Stereotyped Behaviors and Restrictive Interests (SBRI) (z = 0.46, p = 0.647). Higher scores on the Social Interaction domain were significantly associated with higher peptoid binding (z = 2.04, p = 0.041).

Among ADI-R subdomains, higher scores on the Communication domain were associated with lower levels of peptoid binding (z = −2.28, p = 0.023). There was not a significant relationship between Social Interaction (z = 0.07, p = 0.941) or Restrictive/Repetitive Stereotyped Behaviors (z = −1.40, p = 0.162) and peptoid binding.



Computational Model Finds New Protein-Protein Interactions

Researchers at University of Pittsburgh have discovered 500 new protein-protein interactions (PPIs) associated with genes linked to schizophrenia.

Using a computational model they developed, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have discovered more than 500 new protein-protein interactions (PPIs) associated with genes linked to schizophrenia. The findings, published online in npj Schizophrenia, a Nature Publishing Group journal, could lead to greater understanding of the biological underpinnings of this mental illness, as well as point the way to treatments.

There have been many genome-wide association studies (GWAS) that have identified gene variants associated with an increased risk for schizophrenia, but in most cases there is little known about the proteins that these genes make, what they do and how they interact, said senior investigator Madhavi Ganapathiraju, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical informatics, Pitt School of Medicine.

“GWAS studies and other research efforts have shown us what genes might be relevant in schizophrenia,” she said. “What we have done is the next step. We are trying to understand how these genes relate to each other, which could show us the biological pathways that are important in the disease.”

Each gene makes proteins and proteins typically interact with each other in a biological process. Information about interacting partners can shed light on the role of a gene that has not been studied, revealing pathways and biological processes associated with the disease and also its relation to other complex diseases.

Dr. Ganapathiraju’s team developed a computational model called High-Precision Protein Interaction Prediction (HiPPIP) and applied it to discover PPIs of schizophrenia-linked genes identified through GWAS, as well as historically known risk genes. They found 504 never-before known PPIs, and noted also that while schizophrenia-linked genes identified historically and through GWAS had little overlap, the model showed they shared more than 100 common interactors.

“We can infer what the protein might do by checking out the company it keeps,” Dr. Ganapathiraju explained. “For example, if I know you have many friends who play hockey, it could mean that you are involved in hockey, too. Similarly, if we see that an unknown protein interacts with multiple proteins involved in neural signaling, for example, there is a high likelihood that the unknown entity also is involved in the same.”

Dr. Ganapathiraju and colleagues have drawn such inferences on protein function based on the PPIs of proteins, and made their findings available on a website Schizo-Pi. This information can be used by biologists to explore the schizophrenia interactome with the aim of understanding more about the disease or developing new treatment drugs.

Schizophrenia interactome with 504 novel protein–protein interactions

MK GanapathirajuM Thahir,…,  CE LoscherEM Bauer & S Chaparala
npj Schizophrenia 2016;  2(16012)

(GWAS) have revealed the role of rare and common genetic variants, but the functional effects of the risk variants remain to be understood. Protein interactome-based studies can facilitate the study of molecular mechanisms by which the risk genes relate to schizophrenia (SZ) genesis, but protein–protein interactions (PPIs) are unknown for many of the liability genes. We developed a computational model to discover PPIs, which is found to be highly accurate according to computational evaluations and experimental validations of selected PPIs. We present here, 365 novel PPIs of liability genes identified by the SZ Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC). Seventeen genes that had no previously known interactions have 57 novel interactions by our method. Among the new interactors are 19 drug targets that are targeted by 130 drugs. In addition, we computed 147 novel PPIs of 25 candidate genes investigated in the pre-GWAS era. While there is little overlap between the GWAS genes and the pre-GWAS genes, the interactomes reveal that they largely belong to the same pathways, thus reconciling the apparent disparities between the GWAS and prior gene association studies. The interactome including 504 novel PPIs overall, could motivate other systems biology studies and trials with repurposed drugs. The PPIs are made available on a webserver, called Schizo-Pi at with advanced search capabilities.

Schizophrenia (SZ) is a common, potentially severe psychiatric disorder that afflicts all populations.1 Gene mapping studies suggest that SZ is a complex disorder, with a cumulative impact of variable genetic effects coupled with environmental factors.2 As many as 38 genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have been reported on SZ out of a total of 1,750 GWAS publications on 1,087 traits or diseases reported in the GWAS catalog maintained by the National Human Genome Research Institute of USA3 (as of April 2015), revealing the common variants associated with SZ.4 The SZ Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC) identified 108 genetic loci that likely confer risk for SZ.5 While the role of genetics has been clearly validated by this study, the functional impact of the risk variants is not well-understood.6,7 Several of the genes implicated by the GWAS have unknown functions and could participate in possibly hitherto unknown pathways.8 Further, there is little or no overlap between the genes identified through GWAS and ‘candidate genes’ proposed in the pre-GWAS era.9

Interactome-based studies can be useful in discovering the functional associations of genes. For example,disrupted in schizophrenia 1 (DISC1), an SZ related candidate gene originally had no known homolog in humans. Although it had well-characterized protein domains such as coiled-coil domains and leucine-zipper domains, its function was unknown.10,11 Once its protein–protein interactions (PPIs) were determined using yeast 2-hybrid technology,12 investigators successfully linked DISC1 to cAMP signaling, axon elongation, and neuronal migration, and accelerated the research pertaining to SZ in general, and DISC1 in particular.13 Typically such studies are carried out on known protein–protein interaction (PPI) networks, or as in the case of DISC1, when there is a specific gene of interest, its PPIs are determined by methods such as yeast 2-hybrid technology.

Knowledge of human PPI networks is thus valuable for accelerating discovery of protein function, and indeed, biomedical research in general. However, of the hundreds of thousands of biophysical PPIs thought to exist in the human interactome,14,15 <100,000 are known today (Human Protein Reference Database, HPRD16 and BioGRID17 databases). Gold standard experimental methods for the determination of all the PPIs in human interactome are time-consuming, expensive and may not even be feasible, as about 250 million pairs of proteins would need to be tested overall; high-throughput methods such as yeast 2-hybrid have important limitations for whole interactome determination as they have a low recall of 23% (i.e., remaining 77% of true interactions need to be determined by other means), and a low precision (i.e., the screens have to be repeated multiple times to achieve high selectivity).18,19Computational methods are therefore necessary to complete the interactome expeditiously. Algorithms have begun emerging to predict PPIs using statistical machine learning on the characteristics of the proteins, but these algorithms are employed predominantly to study yeast. Two significant computational predictions have been reported for human interactome; although they have had high false positive rates, these methods have laid the foundation for computational prediction of human PPIs.20,21

We have created a new PPI prediction model called High-Confidence Protein–Protein Interaction Prediction (HiPPIP) model. Novel interactions predicted with this model are making translational impact. For example, we discovered a PPI between OASL and DDX58, which on validation showed that an increased expression of OASL could boost innate immunity to combat influenza by activating the RIG-I pathway.22 Also, the interactome of the genes associated with congenital heart disease showed that the disease morphogenesis has a close connection with the structure and function of cilia.23Here, we describe the HiPPIP model and its application to SZ genes to construct the SZ interactome. After computational evaluations and experimental validations of selected novel PPIs, we present here 504 highly confident novel PPIs in the SZ interactome, shedding new light onto several uncharacterized genes that are associated with SZ.

We developed a computational model called HiPPIP to predict PPIs (see Methods and Supplementary File 1). The model has been evaluated by computational methods and experimental validations and is found to be highly accurate. Evaluations on a held-out test data showed a precision of 97.5% and a recall of 5%. 5% recall out of 150,000 to 600,000 estimated number of interactions in the human interactome corresponds to 7,500–30,000 novel PPIs in the whole interactome. Note that, it is likely that the real precision would be higher than 97.5% because in this test data, randomly paired proteins are treated as non-interacting protein pairs, whereas some of them may actually be interacting pairs with a small probability; thus, some of the pairs that are treated as false positives in test set are likely to be true but hitherto unknown interactions. In Figure 1a, we show the precision versus recall of our method on ‘hub proteins’ where we considered all pairs that received a score >0.5 by HiPPIP to be novel interactions. In Figure 1b, we show the number of true positives versus false positives observed in hub proteins. Both these figures also show our method to be superior in comparison to the prediction of membrane-receptor interactome by Qi et al’s.24 True positives versus false positives are also shown for individual hub proteins by our method in Figure 1cand by Qi et al’s.23 in Figure 1d. These evaluations showed that our predictions contain mostly true positives. Unlike in other domains where ranked lists are commonly used such as information retrieval, in PPI prediction the ‘false positives’ may actually be unlabeled instances that are indeed true interactions that are not yet discovered. In fact, such unlabeled pairs predicted as interactors of the hub gene HMGB1 (namely, the pairs HMGB1-KL and HMGB1-FLT1) were validated by experimental methods and found to be true PPIs (See the Figures e–g inSupplementary File 3). Thus, we concluded that the protein pairs that received a score of ⩾0.5 are highly confident to be true interactions. The pairs that receive a score less than but close to 0.5 (i.e., in the range of 0.4–0.5) may also contain several true PPIs; however, we cannot confidently say that all in this range are true PPIs. Only the PPIs predicted with a score >0.5 are included in the interactome.

Figure 1

Computational evaluation of predicted protein–protein interactions on hub proteins: (a) precision recall curve. (b) True positive versus false positives in ranked lists of hub type membrane receptors for our method and that by Qi et al. True positives versus false positives are shown for individual membrane receptors by our method in (c) and by Qi et al. in (d). Thick line is the average, which is also the same as shown in (b). Note:x-axis is recall in (a), whereas it is number of false positives in (bd). The range of y-axis is observed by varying the threshold from 1.0–0 in (a), and to 0.5 in (bd).

SZ interactome

By applying HiPPIP to the GWAS genes and Historic (pre-GWAS) genes, we predicted over 500 high confidence new PPIs adding to about 1400 previously known PPIs.

Schizophrenia interactome: network view of the schizophrenia interactome is shown as a graph, where genes are shown as nodes and PPIs as edges connecting the nodes. Schizophrenia-associated genes are shown as dark blue nodes, novel interactors as red color nodes and known interactors as blue color nodes. The source of the schizophrenia genes is indicated by its label font, where Historic genes are shown italicized, GWAS genes are shown in bold, and the one gene that is common to both is shown in italicized and bold. For clarity, the source is also indicated by the shape of the node (triangular for GWAS and square for Historic and hexagonal for both). Symbols are shown only for the schizophrenia-associated genes; actual interactions may be accessed on the web. Red edges are the novel interactions, whereas blue edges are known interactions. GWAS, genome-wide association studies of schizophrenia; PPI, protein–protein interaction.


Webserver of SZ interactome

We have made the known and novel interactions of all SZ-associated genes available on a webserver called Schizo-Pi, at the address This webserver is similar to Wiki-Pi33 which presents comprehensive annotations of both participating proteins of a PPI side-by-side. The difference between Wiki-Pi which we developed earlier, and Schizo-Pi, is the inclusion of novel predicted interactions of the SZ genes into the latter.

Despite the many advances in biomedical research, identifying the molecular mechanisms underlying the disease is still challenging. Studies based on protein interactions were proven to be valuable in identifying novel gene associations that could shed new light on disease pathology.35 The interactome including more than 500 novel PPIs will help to identify pathways and biological processes associated with the disease and also its relation to other complex diseases. It also helps identify potential drugs that could be repurposed to use for SZ treatment.

Functional and pathway enrichment in SZ interactome

When a gene of interest has little known information, functions of its interacting partners serve as a starting point to hypothesize its own function. We computed statistically significant enrichment of GO biological process terms among the interacting partners of each of the genes using BinGO36 (see online at


Protein aggregation and aggregate toxicity: new insights into protein folding, misfolding diseases and biological evolution

Massimo Stefani · Christopher M. Dobson

Abstract The deposition of proteins in the form of amyloid fibrils and plaques is the characteristic feature of more than 20 degenerative conditions affecting either the central nervous system or a variety of peripheral tissues. As these conditions include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and the prion diseases, several forms of fatal systemic amyloidosis, and at least one condition associated with medical intervention (haemodialysis), they are of enormous importance in the context of present-day human health and welfare. Much remains to be learned about the mechanism by which the proteins associated with these diseases aggregate and form amyloid structures, and how the latter affect the functions of the organs with which they are associated. A great deal of information concerning these diseases has emerged, however, during the past 5 years, much of it causing a number of fundamental assumptions about the amyloid diseases to be reexamined. For example, it is now apparent that the ability to form amyloid structures is not an unusual feature of the small number of proteins associated with these diseases but is instead a general property of polypeptide chains. It has also been found recently that aggregates of proteins not associated with amyloid diseases can impair the ability of cells to function to a similar extent as aggregates of proteins linked with specific neurodegenerative conditions. Moreover, the mature amyloid fibrils or plaques appear to be substantially less toxic than the prefibrillar aggregates that are their precursors. The toxicity of these early aggregates appears to result from an intrinsic ability to impair fundamental cellular processes by interacting with cellular membranes, causing oxidative stress and increases in free Ca2+ that eventually lead to apoptotic or necrotic cell death. The ‘new view’ of these diseases also suggests that other degenerative conditions could have similar underlying origins to those of the amyloidoses. In addition, cellular protection mechanisms, such as molecular chaperones and the protein degradation machinery, appear to be crucial in the prevention of disease in normally functioning living organisms. It also suggests some intriguing new factors that could be of great significance in the evolution of biological molecules and the mechanisms that regulate their behaviour.

The genetic information within a cell encodes not only the specific structures and functions of proteins but also the way these structures are attained through the process known as protein folding. In recent years many of the underlying features of the fundamental mechanism of this complex process and the manner in which it is regulated in living systems have emerged from a combination of experimental and theoretical studies [1]. The knowledge gained from these studies has also raised a host of interesting issues. It has become apparent, for example, that the folding and unfolding of proteins is associated with a whole range of cellular processes from the trafficking of molecules to specific organelles to the regulation of the cell cycle and the immune response. Such observations led to the inevitable conclusion that the failure to fold correctly, or to remain correctly folded, gives rise to many different types of biological malfunctions and hence to many different forms of disease [2]. In addition, it has been recognised recently that a large number of eukaryotic genes code for proteins that appear to be ‘natively unfolded’, and that proteins can adopt, under certain circumstances, highly organised multi-molecular assemblies whose structures are not specifically encoded in the amino acid sequence. Both these observations have raised challenging questions about one of the most fundamental principles of biology: the close relationship between the sequence, structure and function of proteins, as we discuss below [3].

It is well established that proteins that are ‘misfolded’, i.e. that are not in their functionally relevant conformation, are devoid of normal biological activity. In addition, they often aggregate and/or interact inappropriately with other cellular components leading to impairment of cell viability and eventually to cell death. Many diseases, often known as misfolding or conformational diseases, ultimately result from the presence in a living system of protein molecules with structures that are ‘incorrect’, i.e. that differ from those in normally functioning organisms [4]. Such diseases include conditions in which a specific protein, or protein complex, fails to fold correctly (e.g. cystic fibrosis, Marfan syndrome, amyotonic lateral sclerosis) or is not sufficiently stable to perform its normal function (e.g. many forms of cancer). They also include conditions in which aberrant folding behaviour results in the failure of a protein to be correctly trafficked (e.g. familial hypercholesterolaemia, α1-antitrypsin deficiency, and some forms of retinitis pigmentosa) [4]. The tendency of proteins to aggregate, often to give species extremely intractable to dissolution and refolding, is of course also well known in other circumstances. Examples include the formation of inclusion bodies during overexpression of heterologous proteins in bacteria and the precipitation of proteins during laboratory purification procedures. Indeed, protein aggregation is well established as one of the major difficulties associated with the production and handling of proteins in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries [5].

Considerable attention is presently focused on a group of protein folding diseases known as amyloidoses. In these diseases specific peptides or proteins fail to fold or to remain correctly folded and then aggregate (often with other components) so as to give rise to ‘amyloid’ deposits in tissue. Amyloid structures can be recognised because they possess a series of specific tinctorial and biophysical characteristics that reflect a common core structure based on the presence of highly organised βsheets [6]. The deposits in strictly defined amyloidoses are extracellular and can often be observed as thread-like fibrillar structures, sometimes assembled further into larger aggregates or plaques. These diseases include a range of sporadic, familial or transmissible degenerative diseases, some of which affect the brain and the central nervous system (e.g. Alzheimer’s and Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases), while others involve peripheral tissues and organs such as the liver, heart and spleen (e.g. systemic amyloidoses and type II diabetes) [7, 8]. In other forms of amyloidosis, such as primary or secondary systemic amyloidoses, proteinaceous deposits are found in skeletal tissue and joints (e.g. haemodialysis-related amyloidosis) as well as in several organs (e.g. heart and kidney). Yet other components such as collagen, glycosaminoglycans and proteins (e.g. serum amyloid protein) are often present in the deposits protecting them against degradation [9, 10, 11]. Similar deposits to those in the amyloidoses are, however, found intracellularly in other diseases; these can be localised either in the cytoplasm, in the form of specialised aggregates known as aggresomes or as Lewy or Russell bodies or in the nucleus (see below).

The presence in tissue of proteinaceous deposits is a hallmark of all these diseases, suggesting a causative link between aggregate formation and pathological symptoms (often known as the amyloid hypothesis) [7, 8, 12]. At the present time the link between amyloid formation and disease is widely accepted on the basis of a large number of biochemical and genetic studies. The specific nature of the pathogenic species, and the molecular basis of their ability to damage cells, are however, the subject of intense debate [13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20]. In neurodegenerative disorders it is very likely that the impairment of cellular function follows directly from the interactions of the aggregated proteins with cellular components [21, 22]. In the systemic non-neurological diseases, however, it is widely believed that the accumulation in vital organs of large amounts of amyloid deposits can by itself cause at least some of the clinical symptoms [23]. It is quite possible, however, that there are other more specific effects of aggregates on biochemical processes even in these diseases. The presence of extracellular or intracellular aggregates of a specific polypeptide molecule is a characteristic of all the 20 or so recognised amyloid diseases. The polypeptides involved include full length proteins (e.g. lysozyme or immunoglobulin light chains), biological peptides (amylin, atrial natriuretic factor) and fragments of larger proteins produced as a result of specific processing (e.g. the Alzheimer βpeptide) or of more general degradation [e.g. poly(Q) stretches cleaved from proteins with poly(Q) extensions such as huntingtin, ataxins and the androgen receptor]. The peptides and proteins associated with known amyloid diseases are listed in Table 1. In some cases the proteins involved have wild type sequences, as in sporadic forms of the diseases, but in other cases these are variants resulting from genetic mutations associated with familial forms of the diseases. In some cases both sporadic and familial diseases are associated with a given protein; in this case the mutational variants are usually associated with early-onset forms of the disease. In the case of the neurodegenerative diseases associated with the prion protein some forms of the diseases are transmissible. The existence of familial forms of a number of amyloid diseases has provided significant clues to the origins of the pathologies. For example, there are increasingly strong links between the age at onset of familial forms of disease and the effects of the mutations involved on the propensity of the affected proteins to aggregate in vitro. Such findings also support the link between the process of aggregation and the clinical manifestations of disease [24, 25].

The presence in cells of misfolded or aggregated proteins triggers a complex biological response. In the cytosol, this is referred to as the ‘heat shock response’ and in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) it is known as the ‘unfolded protein response’. These responses lead to the expression, among others, of the genes for heat shock proteins (Hsp, or molecular chaperone proteins) and proteins involved in the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway [26]. The evolution of such complex biochemical machinery testifies to the fact that it is necessary for cells to isolate and clear rapidly and efficiently any unfolded or incorrectly folded protein as soon as it appears. In itself this fact suggests that these species could have a generally adverse effect on cellular components and cell viability. Indeed, it was a major step forward in understanding many aspects of cell biology when it was recognised that proteins previously associated only with stress, such as heat shock, are in fact crucial in the normal functioning of living systems. This advance, for example, led to the discovery of the role of molecular chaperones in protein folding and in the normal ‘housekeeping’ processes that are inherent in healthy cells [27, 28]. More recently a number of degenerative diseases, both neurological and systemic, have been linked to, or shown to be affected by, impairment of the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway (Table 2). The diseases are primarily associated with a reduction in either the expression or the biological activity of Hsps, ubiquitin, ubiquitinating or deubiquitinating enzymes and the proteasome itself, as we show below [29, 30, 31, 32], or even to the failure of the quality control mechanisms that ensure proper maturation of proteins in the ER. The latter normally leads to degradation of a significant proportion of polypeptide chains before they have attained their native conformations through retrograde translocation to the cytosol [33, 34].


It is now well established that the molecular basis of protein aggregation into amyloid structures involves the existence of ‘misfolded’ forms of proteins, i.e. proteins that are not in the structures in which they normally function in vivo or of fragments of proteins resulting from degradation processes that are inherently unable to fold [4, 7, 8, 36]. Aggregation is one of the common consequences of a polypeptide chain failing to reach or maintain its functional three-dimensional structure. Such events can be associated with specific mutations, misprocessing phenomena, aberrant interactions with metal ions, changes in environmental conditions, such as pH or temperature, or chemical modification (oxidation, proteolysis). Perturbations in the conformational properties of the polypeptide chain resulting from such phenomena may affect equilibrium 1 in Fig. 1 increasing the population of partially unfolded, or misfolded, species that are much more aggregation-prone than the native state.

Fig. 1 Overview of the possible fates of a newly synthesised polypeptide chain. The equilibrium ① between the partially folded molecules and the natively folded ones is usually strongly in favour of the latter except as a result of specific mutations, chemical modifications or partially destabilising solution conditions. The increased equilibrium populations of molecules in the partially or completely unfolded ensemble of structures are usually degraded by the proteasome; when this clearance mechanism is impaired, such species often form disordered aggregates or shift equilibrium ② towards the nucleation of pre-fibrillar assemblies that eventually grow into mature fibrils (equilibrium ③). DANGER! indicates that pre-fibrillar aggregates in most cases display much higher toxicity than mature fibrils. Heat shock proteins (Hsp) can suppress the appearance of pre-fibrillar assemblies by minimising the population of the partially folded molecules by assisting in the correct folding of the nascent chain and the unfolded protein response target incorrectly folded proteins for degradation.


Little is known at present about the detailed arrangement of the polypeptide chains themselves within amyloid fibrils, either those parts involved in the core βstrands or in regions that connect the various β-strands. Recent data suggest that the sheets are relatively untwisted and may in some cases at least exist in quite specific supersecondary structure motifs such as β-helices [6, 40] or the recently proposed µ-helix [41]. It seems possible that there may be significant differences in the way the strands are assembled depending on characteristics of the polypeptide chain involved [6, 42]. Factors including length, sequence (and in some cases the presence of disulphide bonds or post-translational modifications such as glycosylation) may be important in determining details of the structures. Several recent papers report structural models for amyloid fibrils containing different polypeptide chains, including the Aβ40 peptide, insulin and fragments of the prion protein, based on data from such techniques as cryo-electron microscopy and solid-state magnetic resonance spectroscopy [43, 44]. These models have much in common and do indeed appear to reflect the fact that the structures of different fibrils are likely to be variations on a common theme [40]. It is also emerging that there may be some common and highly organised assemblies of amyloid protofilaments that are not simply extended threads or ribbons. It is clear, for example, that in some cases large closed loops can be formed [45, 46, 47], and there may be specific types of relatively small spherical or ‘doughnut’ shaped structures that can result in at least some circumstances (see below).


The similarity of some early amyloid aggregates with the pores resulting from oligomerisation of bacterial toxins and pore-forming eukaryotic proteins (see below) also suggest that the basic mechanism of protein aggregation into amyloid structures may not only be associated with diseases but in some cases could result in species with functional significance. Recent evidence indicates that a variety of micro-organisms may exploit the controlled aggregation of specific proteins (or their precursors) to generate functional structures. Examples include bacterial curli [52] and proteins of the interior fibre cells of mammalian ocular lenses, whose β-sheet arrays seem to be organised in an amyloid-like supramolecular order [53]. In this case the inherent stability of amyloid-like protein structure may contribute to the long-term structural integrity and transparency of the lens. Recently it has been hypothesised that amyloid-like aggregates of serum amyloid A found in secondary amyloidoses following chronic inflammatory diseases protect the host against bacterial infections by inducing lysis of bacterial cells [54]. One particularly interesting example is a ‘misfolded’ form of the milk protein α-lactalbumin that is formed at low pH and trapped by the presence of specific lipid molecules [55]. This form of the protein has been reported to trigger apoptosis selectively in tumour cells providing evidence for its importance in protecting infants from certain types of cancer [55]. ….

Amyloid formation is a generic property of polypeptide chains ….

It is clear that the presence of different side chains can influence the details of amyloid structures, particularly the assembly of protofibrils, and that they give rise to the variations on the common structural theme discussed above. More fundamentally, the composition and sequence of a peptide or protein affects profoundly its propensity to form amyloid structures under given conditions (see below).

Because the formation of stable protein aggregates of amyloid type does not normally occur in vivo under physiological conditions, it is likely that the proteins encoded in the genomes of living organisms are endowed with structural adaptations that mitigate against aggregation under these conditions. A recent survey involving a large number of structures of β-proteins highlights several strategies through which natural proteins avoid intermolecular association of β-strands in their native states [65].  Other surveys of protein databases indicate that nature disfavours sequences of alternating polar and nonpolar residues, as well as clusters of several consecutive hydrophobic residues, both of which enhance the tendency of a protein to aggregate prior to becoming completely folded [66, 67].


Precursors of amyloid fibrils can be toxic to cells

It was generally assumed until recently that the proteinaceous aggregates most toxic to cells are likely to be mature amyloid fibrils, the form of aggregates that have been commonly detected in pathological deposits. It therefore appeared probable that the pathogenic features underlying amyloid diseases are a consequence of the interaction with cells of extracellular deposits of aggregated material. As well as forming the basis for understanding the fundamental causes of these diseases, this scenario stimulated the exploration of therapeutic approaches to amyloidoses that focused mainly on the search for molecules able to impair the growth and deposition of fibrillar forms of aggregated proteins. ….

Structural basis and molecular features of amyloid toxicity

The presence of toxic aggregates inside or outside cells can impair a number of cell functions that ultimately lead to cell death by an apoptotic mechanism [95, 96]. Recent research suggests, however, that in most cases initial perturbations to fundamental cellular processes underlie the impairment of cell function induced by aggregates of disease-associated polypeptides. Many pieces of data point to a central role of modifications to the intracellular redox status and free Ca2+ levels in cells exposed to toxic aggregates [45, 89, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101]. A modification of the intracellular redox status in such cells is associated with a sharp increase in the quantity of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that is reminiscent of the oxidative burst by which leukocytes destroy invading foreign cells after phagocytosis. In addition, changes have been observed in reactive nitrogen species, lipid peroxidation, deregulation of NO metabolism [97], protein nitrosylation [102] and upregulation of heme oxygenase-1, a specific marker of oxidative stress [103]. ….

Results have recently been reported concerning the toxicity towards cultured cells of aggregates of poly(Q) peptides which argues against a disease mechanism based on specific toxic features of the aggregates. These results indicate that there is a close relationship between the toxicity of proteins with poly(Q) extensions and their nuclear localisation. In addition they support the hypotheses that the toxicity of poly(Q) aggregates can be a consequence of altered interactions with nuclear coactivator or corepressor molecules including p53, CBP, Sp1 and TAF130 or of the interaction with transcription factors and nuclear coactivators, such as CBP, endowed with short poly(Q) stretches ([95] and references therein)…..

Concluding remarks
The data reported in the past few years strongly suggest that the conversion of normally soluble proteins into amyloid fibrils and the toxicity of small aggregates appearing during the early stages of the formation of the latter are common or generic features of polypeptide chains. Moreover, the molecular basis of this toxicity also appears to display common features between the different systems that have so far been studied. The ability of many, perhaps all, natural polypeptides to ‘misfold’ and convert into toxic aggregates under suitable conditions suggests that one of the most important driving forces in the evolution of proteins must have been the negative selection against sequence changes that increase the tendency of a polypeptide chain to aggregate. Nevertheless, as protein folding is a stochastic process, and no such process can be completely infallible, misfolded proteins or protein folding intermediates in equilibrium with the natively folded molecules must continuously form within cells. Thus mechanisms to deal with such species must have co-evolved with proteins. Indeed, it is clear that misfolding, and the associated tendency to aggregate, is kept under control by molecular chaperones, which render the resulting species harmless assisting in their refolding, or triggering their degradation by the cellular clearance machinery [166, 167, 168, 169, 170, 171, 172, 173, 175, 177, 178].

Misfolded and aggregated species are likely to owe their toxicity to the exposure on their surfaces of regions of proteins that are buried in the interior of the structures of the correctly folded native states. The exposure of large patches of hydrophobic groups is likely to be particularly significant as such patches favour the interaction of the misfolded species with cell membranes [44, 83, 89, 90, 91, 93]. Interactions of this type are likely to lead to the impairment of the function and integrity of the membranes involved, giving rise to a loss of regulation of the intracellular ion balance and redox status and eventually to cell death. In addition, misfolded proteins undoubtedly interact inappropriately with other cellular components, potentially giving rise to the impairment of a range of other biological processes. Under some conditions the intracellular content of aggregated species may increase directly, due to an enhanced propensity of incompletely folded or misfolded species to aggregate within the cell itself. This could occur as the result of the expression of mutational variants of proteins with decreased stability or cooperativity or with an intrinsically higher propensity to aggregate. It could also occur as a result of the overproduction of some types of protein, for example, because of other genetic factors or other disease conditions, or because of perturbations to the cellular environment that generate conditions favouring aggregation, such as heat shock or oxidative stress. Finally, the accumulation of misfolded or aggregated proteins could arise from the chaperone and clearance mechanisms becoming overwhelmed as a result of specific mutant phenotypes or of the general effects of ageing [173, 174].

The topics discussed in this review not only provide a great deal of evidence for the ‘new view’ that proteins have an intrinsic capability of misfolding and forming structures such as amyloid fibrils but also suggest that the role of molecular chaperones is even more important than was thought in the past. The role of these ubiquitous proteins in enhancing the efficiency of protein folding is well established [185]. It could well be that they are at least as important in controlling the harmful effects of misfolded or aggregated proteins as in enhancing the yield of functional molecules.


Nutritional Status is Associated with Faster Cognitive Decline and Worse Functional Impairment in the Progression of Dementia: The Cache County Dementia Progression Study1

Sanders, Chelseaa | Behrens, Stephaniea | Schwartz, Sarahb | Wengreen, Heidic | Corcoran, Chris D.b; d | Lyketsos, Constantine G.e | Tschanz, JoAnn T.a; d;
Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 2016; 52(1):33-42,

Nutritional status may be a modifiable factor in the progression of dementia. We examined the association of nutritional status and rate of cognitive and functional decline in a U.S. population-based sample. Study design was an observational longitudinal study with annual follow-ups up to 6 years of 292 persons with dementia (72% Alzheimer’s disease, 56% female) in Cache County, UT using the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE), Clinical Dementia Rating Sum of Boxes (CDR-sb), and modified Mini Nutritional Assessment (mMNA). mMNA scores declined by approximately 0.50 points/year, suggesting increasing risk for malnutrition. Lower mMNA score predicted faster rate of decline on the MMSE at earlier follow-up times, but slower decline at later follow-up times, whereas higher mMNA scores had the opposite pattern (mMNA by time β= 0.22, p = 0.017; mMNA by time2 β= –0.04, p = 0.04). Lower mMNA score was associated with greater impairment on the CDR-sb over the course of dementia (β= 0.35, p <  0.001). Assessment of malnutrition may be useful in predicting rates of progression in dementia and may provide a target for clinical intervention.


Shared Genetic Risk Factors for Late-Life Depression and Alzheimer’s Disease

Ye, Qing | Bai, Feng* | Zhang, Zhijun
Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 2016; 52(1): 1-15.                            

Background: Considerable evidence has been reported for the comorbidity between late-life depression (LLD) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), both of which are very common in the general elderly population and represent a large burden on the health of the elderly. The pathophysiological mechanisms underlying the link between LLD and AD are poorly understood. Because both LLD and AD can be heritable and are influenced by multiple risk genes, shared genetic risk factors between LLD and AD may exist. Objective: The objective is to review the existing evidence for genetic risk factors that are common to LLD and AD and to outline the biological substrates proposed to mediate this association. Methods: A literature review was performed. Results: Genetic polymorphisms of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, apolipoprotein E, interleukin 1-beta, and methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase have been demonstrated to confer increased risk to both LLD and AD by studies examining either LLD or AD patients. These results contribute to the understanding of pathophysiological mechanisms that are common to both of these disorders, including deficits in nerve growth factors, inflammatory changes, and dysregulation mechanisms involving lipoprotein and folate. Other conflicting results have also been reviewed, and few studies have investigated the effects of the described polymorphisms on both LLD and AD. Conclusion: The findings suggest that common genetic pathways may underlie LLD and AD comorbidity. Studies to evaluate the genetic relationship between LLD and AD may provide insights into the molecular mechanisms that trigger disease progression as the population ages.


Association of Vitamin B12, Folate, and Sulfur Amino Acids With Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging Measures in Older Adults: A Longitudinal Population-Based Study

B Hooshmand, F Mangialasche, G Kalpouzos…, et al.
AMA Psychiatry. Published online April 27, 2016.

Importance  Vitamin B12, folate, and sulfur amino acids may be modifiable risk factors for structural brain changes that precede clinical dementia.

Objective  To investigate the association of circulating levels of vitamin B12, red blood cell folate, and sulfur amino acids with the rate of total brain volume loss and the change in white matter hyperintensity volume as measured by fluid-attenuated inversion recovery in older adults.

Design, Setting, and Participants  The magnetic resonance imaging subsample of the Swedish National Study on Aging and Care in Kungsholmen, a population-based longitudinal study in Stockholm, Sweden, was conducted in 501 participants aged 60 years or older who were free of dementia at baseline. A total of 299 participants underwent repeated structural brain magnetic resonance imaging scans from September 17, 2001, to December 17, 2009.

Main Outcomes and Measures  The rate of brain tissue volume loss and the progression of total white matter hyperintensity volume.

Results  In the multi-adjusted linear mixed models, among 501 participants (300 women [59.9%]; mean [SD] age, 70.9 [9.1] years), higher baseline vitamin B12 and holotranscobalamin levels were associated with a decreased rate of total brain volume loss during the study period: for each increase of 1 SD, β (SE) was 0.048 (0.013) for vitamin B12 (P < .001) and 0.040 (0.013) for holotranscobalamin (P = .002). Increased total homocysteine levels were associated with faster rates of total brain volume loss in the whole sample (β [SE] per 1-SD increase, –0.035 [0.015]; P = .02) and with the progression of white matter hyperintensity among participants with systolic blood pressure greater than 140 mm Hg (β [SE] per 1-SD increase, 0.000019 [0.00001]; P = .047). No longitudinal associations were found for red blood cell folate and other sulfur amino acids.

Conclusions and Relevance  This study suggests that both vitamin B12 and total homocysteine concentrations may be related to accelerated aging of the brain. Randomized clinical trials are needed to determine the importance of vitamin B12supplementation on slowing brain aging in older adults.



Notes from Kurzweill

This vitamin stops the aging process in organs, say Swiss researchers

A potential breakthrough for regenerative medicine, pending further studies

Improved muscle stem cell numbers and muscle function in NR-treated aged mice: Newly regenerated muscle fibers 7 days after muscle damage in aged mice (left: control group; right: fed NR). (Scale bar = 50 μm). (credit: Hongbo Zhang et al./Science)

EPFL researchers have restored the ability of mice organs to regenerate and extend life by simply administering nicotinamide riboside (NR) to them.

NR has been shown in previous studies to be effective in boosting metabolism and treating a number of degenerative diseases. Now, an article by PhD student Hongbo Zhang published in Science also describes the restorative effects of NR on the functioning of stem cells for regenerating organs.

As in all mammals, as mice age, the regenerative capacity of certain organs (such as the liver and kidneys) and muscles (including the heart) diminishes. Their ability to repair them following an injury is also affected. This leads to many of the disorders typical of aging.

Mitochondria —> stem cells —> organs

To understand how the regeneration process deteriorates with age, Zhang teamed up with colleagues from ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich, and universities in Canada and Brazil. By using several biomarkers, they were able to identify the molecular chain that regulates how mitochondria — the “powerhouse” of the cell — function and how they change with age. “We were able to show for the first time that their ability to function properly was important for stem cells,” said Auwerx.

Under normal conditions, these stem cells, reacting to signals sent by the body, regenerate damaged organs by producing new specific cells. At least in young bodies. “We demonstrated that fatigue in stem cells was one of the main causes of poor regeneration or even degeneration in certain tissues or organs,” said Zhang.

How to revitalize stem cells

Which is why the researchers wanted to “revitalize” stem cells in the muscles of elderly mice. And they did so by precisely targeting the molecules that help the mitochondria to function properly. “We gave nicotinamide riboside to 2-year-old mice, which is an advanced age for them,” said Zhang.

“This substance, which is close to vitamin B3, is a precursor of NAD+, a molecule that plays a key role in mitochondrial activity. And our results are extremely promising: muscular regeneration is much better in mice that received NR, and they lived longer than the mice that didn’t get it.”

Parallel studies have revealed a comparable effect on stem cells of the brain and skin. “This work could have very important implications in the field of regenerative medicine,” said Auwerx. This work on the aging process also has potential for treating diseases that can affect — and be fatal — in young people, like muscular dystrophy (myopathy).

So far, no negative side effects have been observed following the use of NR, even at high doses. But while it appears to boost the functioning of all cells, it could include pathological ones, so further in-depth studies are required.

Abstract of NAD+ repletion improves mitochondrial and stem cell function and enhances life span in mice

Adult stem cells (SCs) are essential for tissue maintenance and regeneration yet are susceptible to senescence during aging. We demonstrate the importance of the amount of the oxidized form of cellular nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) and its impact on mitochondrial activity as a pivotal switch to modulate muscle SC (MuSC) senescence. Treatment with the NAD+ precursor nicotinamide riboside (NR) induced the mitochondrial unfolded protein response (UPRmt) and synthesis of prohibitin proteins, and this rejuvenated MuSCs in aged mice. NR also prevented MuSC senescence in the Mdx mouse model of muscular dystrophy. We furthermore demonstrate that NR delays senescence of neural SCs (NSCs) and melanocyte SCs (McSCs), and increased mouse lifespan. Strategies that conserve cellular NAD+ may reprogram dysfunctional SCs and improve lifespan in mammals.


Hongbo Zhang, Dongryeol Ryu, Yibo Wu, Karim Gariani, Xu Wang, Peiling Luan, Davide D’amico, Eduardo R. Ropelle, Matthias P. Lutolf, Ruedi Aebersold, Kristina Schoonjans, Keir J. Menzies, Johan Auwerx. NAD repletion improves mitochondrial and stem cell function and enhances lifespan in mice. Science, 2016 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2693


Enhancer–promoter interactions are encoded by complex genomic signatures on looping chromatin

Sean WhalenRebecca M Truty & Katherine S Pollard
Nature Genetics 2016; 48:488–496

Discriminating the gene target of a distal regulatory element from other nearby transcribed genes is a challenging problem with the potential to illuminate the causal underpinnings of complex diseases. We present TargetFinder, a computational method that reconstructs regulatory landscapes from diverse features along the genome. The resulting models accurately predict individual enhancer–promoter interactions across multiple cell lines with a false discovery rate up to 15 times smaller than that obtained using the closest gene. By evaluating the genomic features driving this accuracy, we uncover interactions between structural proteins, transcription factors, epigenetic modifications, and transcription that together distinguish interacting from non-interacting enhancer–promoter pairs. Most of this signature is not proximal to the enhancers and promoters but instead decorates the looping DNA. We conclude that complex but consistent combinations of marks on the one-dimensional genome encode the three-dimensional structure of fine-scale regulatory interactions.

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Omega 3 fatty acids for cognitive decline

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Alpha-linolenic acid given as enteral or parenteral nutritional intervention against sensorimotor and cognitive deficits in a mouse model of ischemic stroke

Miled Bourouroua, b,  Catherine Heurteauxa, bNicolas Blondeaua, b,

Neuropharmacology  Available online 29 April 2016    doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2016.04.040
•   High level of disability remains a substantial problem for stroke.
•   An emerging concept to support stroke recovery is nutritional support.
•   We compared whether oral or i.v supplementation of the omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) best support recovery from stroke.
•   Both types of ALA supplementation improved spatial learning and memory after stroke.
•   This supports therapeutic plans using nutritional support in ALA in recovery from stroke.


Image for unlabelled figure


Stroke is a leading cause of disability and death worldwide. Numerous therapeutics applied acutely after stroke have failed to improve long-term clinical outcomes. An emerging direction is nutritional intervention with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids acting as disease-modifying factors and targeting post-stroke disabilities. Our previous studies demonstrated that the omega-3 precursor, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) administrated by injections or dietary supplementation reduces stroke damage by direct neuroprotection, and triggering brain artery vasodilatation and neuroplasticity. Successful translation of putative therapies will depend on demonstration of robust efficacy on common deficits resulting from stroke like loss of motor control and memory/learning. This study evaluated the value of ALA as adjunctive therapy for stroke recovery by comparing whether oral or intravenous supplementation of ALA best support recovery from ischemia. Motor and cognitive deficits were assessed using rotarod, pole and Morris water maze tests. ALA supplementation in diet was better than intravenous treatment in improving motor coordination, but this improvement was not due to a neuroprotective effect since infarct size was not reduced. Both types of ALA supplementation improved spatial learning and memory after stroke. This cognitive improvement correlated with higher survival of hippocampal neurons. These results support clinical investigation establishing therapeutic plans using ALA supplementation



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Neuroscience impact of synaptic pruning discovery

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Synaptic Pruning Discovery May Lead to New Therapies for Neuro Disorders

GEN 3 May, 2016

Source: NIH


A research team led by scientists at SUNY Downstate Medical Center has identified a brain receptor that appears to initiate adolescent synaptic pruning, a process believed necessary for learning, but one that appears to go awry in both autism and schizophrenia.

Sheryl Smith, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate, explained that “Memories are formed at structures in the brain known as dendritic spines that communicate with other brain cells through synapses. The number of brain connections decreases by half after puberty, a finding shown in many brain areas and for many species, including humans and rodents.”

This process is referred to as adolescent “synaptic pruning” and is thought to be important for normal learning in adulthood. Synaptic pruning is believed to remove unnecessary synaptic connections to make room for relevant new memories, but because it is disrupted in diseases such as autism and schizophrenia, there has recently been widespread interest in the subject.

“Our report is the first to identify the process which initiates synaptic pruning at puberty. Previous studies have shown that scavenging by the immune system cleans up the debris from these pruned connections, likely the final step in the pruning process,” added Dr. Smith. “Working with a mouse model we have shown that, at puberty, there is an increase in inhibitory GABA [gamma-aminobutyric acid] receptors, which are targets for brain chemicals that quiet down nerve cells. We now report that these GABA receptors trigger synaptic pruning at puberty in the mouse hippocampus, a brain area involved in learning and memory.”

The study (“Synaptic Pruning in the Female Hippocampus Is Triggered at Puberty by Extrasynaptic GABAA Receptors on Dendritic Spines”) is published online in eLife.

Dr. Smith noted that by reducing brain activity, these GABA receptors also reduce levels of a protein in the dendritic spine, kalirin-7, which stabilizes the scaffolding in the spine to maintain its structure. Mice that do not have these receptors maintain the same high level of brain connections throughout adolescence.

Dr. Smith pointed out that the mice with too many brain connections, which do not undergo synaptic pruning, are able to learn spatial locations, but are unable to relearn new locations after the initial learning, suggesting that too many brain connections may limit learning potential.

These findings may suggest new treatments targeting GABA receptors for “normalizing” synaptic pruning in diseases such as autism and schizophrenia, where synaptic pruning is abnormal. Research has suggested that children with autism may have an over-abundance of synapses in some parts of the brain. Other research suggests that prefrontal brain areas in persons with schizophrenia have fewer neural connections than the brains of those who do not have the condition.


Synaptic pruning in the female hippocampus is triggered at puberty by extrasynaptic GABAAreceptors on dendritic spines

Adolescent synaptic pruning is thought to enable optimal cognition because it is disrupted in certain neuropathologies, yet the initiator of this process is unknown. One factor not yet considered is the α4βδ GABAA receptor (GABAR), an extrasynaptic inhibitory receptor which first emerges on dendritic spines at puberty in female mice. Here we show that α4βδ GABARs trigger adolescent pruning. Spine density of CA1 hippocampal pyramidal cells decreased by half post-pubertally in female wild-type but not α4 KO mice. This effect was associated with decreased expression of kalirin-7 (Kal7), a spine protein which controls actin cytoskeleton remodeling. Kal7 decreased at puberty as a result of reduced NMDAR activation due to α4βδ-mediated inhibition. In the absence of this inhibition, Kal7 expression was unchanged at puberty. In the unpruned condition, spatial re-learning was impaired. These data suggest that pubertal pruning requires α4βδ GABARs. In their absence, pruning is prevented and cognition is not optimal.

Searches Related to Synaptic Pruning in the Female Hippocampus Is Triggered at Puberty by Extrasynaptic GABAA Receptors on Dendritic Spines

Optogenetics helps understand what causes anxiety and depression

Researchers at Ruhr University Bochum (RUB; Germany) coupled nerve cell receptors to light-sensitive retinal pigments to understand how the serotonin neurotransmitter works and, therefore, learn what causes anxiety anddepression.

Related: Optogenetics could lead to better understanding of anxiety, depression

Prof. Dr. Olivia Masseck, who led the work, researches the causes of anxiety and depression. For more than 60 years, researchers have been hypothesising that the diseases are caused by, among other factors, changes to the level of serotonin. But understanding how the serotonin system works is quite difficult, says Masseck, who became junior professor for Super-Resolution Fluorescence Microscopy at RUB in April 2016.

With a method called optogenetics, Olivia Masseck (right) creates nerve cell receptors that are controllable with light. (Copyright: RUB, Damian Gorczany)

The number of receptors for serotonin in the brain amounts to 14, occurring in different cell types. Consequently, determining the functions that different receptors fulfill in the individual cell types is a complicated task. If, however, the proteins are coupled to light-sensitive pigments, they can be switched on and off with light of a specific color at high spatial and temporal precision. Masseck used this method, known as optogenetics, to characterize, for example, the properties of different light-sensitive proteins and identified the ones that are best suited as optogenetic tools. She has analyzed several light-sensitive varieties of the serotonin receptors 5-HT1A and 5-HT2C in great detail. Together with her collaborators, she has demonstrated in several studies that both receptors can control the anxiety behavior of mice.

To investigate the serotonin system more closely, Masseck and her research team is currently developing a sensor that is going to indicate the neurotransmitter in real time. One potential approach involves the integration of a modified form of a green fluorescent protein into a serotonin receptor.

In a brain slice, Olivia Masseck measures the activity of nerve cells in which she switches on their receptors using light stimulation. Via the pipette a red dye diffuses into the cell, rendering them visible in the brain slice. (Copyright: RUB, Damian Gorczany)

This protein produces green light only if it is embedded in a specific spatial structure. If a serotonin molecule binds to a receptor, the receptor changes its three-dimensional conformation. The objective is to integrate the fluorescent protein in the receptor so that its spatial structure changes together with that of the receptor when it binds a serotonin molecule, in such a way that the protein begins to glow.

Full details of the work appear in Rubin Science Magazine; for more information, please visit

Controlling nerve cells with light   

New optogenetic tools   by Julia Weiler
Anxiety and depression are two of the most frequently occurring mental disorders worldwide. Light-activated nerve cells may indicate how they are formed.

Statistically, every fifth individual suffers from depression or anxiety in the course of his or her life. The mechanisms that trigger these disorders are not yet fully understood, despite the fact that researchers have been studying the hypothesis that one of the underlying cause are changes to the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin for 60 years.

“Unfortunately, it is very difficult to understand how the serotonin system works,” says Prof Dr Olivia Masseck, who is junior professor for Super-Resolution Fluorescence Microscopy since the end of April 2016. She  intends to fathom the mysteries of the complex system. The number of receptors for the neurotransmitter in the brain amounts to 14 in total, and they occur in different cell types. Consequently, determining the functions that different receptors fulfil in the individual cell types is a complicated task.

In order to fathom the purpose of such receptors, researchers used to observe which functions were inhibited after they had been activated or blocked with the aid of pharmaceutical drugs. However, many substances affect not just one receptor, but several at the same time. Moreover, researchers cannot tell receptors in the individual cell types apart when pharmaceutical drugs have been applied. “It had been impossible to study serotonin signalling pathways at high spatial and temporal resolution,” adds Masseck. Until the development of optogenetics.

“This method has revolutionised neuroscience,” says Olivia Masseck, whose collaborator Prof Dr Stefan Herlitze was one of the pioneers in this field. Optogenetics allows precise control over the activity of specific nerve cells or receptors with light. What sounds like science fiction, is routine at RUB’s Neuroscience Research Department. Masseck: “Until now, we had been passive observers, and monitoring cell activity was all we could do; now, we are able to manipulate it precisely.”

The researcher from Bochum is mainly interested in the 5-HT1A and 5-HT1B receptors, the so-called autoreceptors of the serotonin system. They occur in serotonin-producing cells, where they regulate the amount of released neurotransmitters; that means they determine the serotonin level in the brain.

Normally, 5-HT1A and 5-HT1B are activated when a serotonin molecule bonds to the receptor. The docking triggers a chain reaction in the cell. The effects of this signalling cascade include a reduced activity of the neural cell, which releases less neurotransmitter.

By modifying certain brain cells in the brains of mice, Olivia Masseck successfully activated the 5-HT1Areceptor without the aid of serotonin. She combined it with a visual pigment – so-called opsin. More specifically, she utilised blue or red visual pigments from the cones responsible for colour vision. This is how she generated a serotonin receptor that she could switch on with red or blue light. This method enables the RUB researcher to identify the role the 5-HT1A receptor plays in anxiety and depression.

To this end, she delivered the combined protein made up of light-sensitive opsin and serotonin receptor into the brain of mice using a virus that had been rendered harmless. Like a shuttle, it transports genetic information which contains the blueprint for the combined protein. Once injected into brain tissue, the virus implants the gene for the light-activated receptor in specific nerve cells. There, it is read, and the light-activated receptor is incorporated into the cell membrane.

The researcher was now able to switch the receptors on and off in a living mouse using light. She analysed in what way this manipulation affected the animals’ behaviour in an anxiety test, i.e. Open Field Test. For the purpose of the experiment, she placed individual mice in a large, empty Plexiglas box.

Under normal circumstances, the animals avoid the centre of the brightly-lit box, because it doesn’t offer any cover. Most of the time, they stay close to the walls. When Olivia Masseck switched on the 5-HT1Areceptor using light, the behaviour of the mice changed. They were less anxious and spent more time in the middle of the Plexiglas box.

These results were confirmed in a further test. Olivia Masseck stopped the time it took the mice to eat a food pellet in the middle of a large Plexiglas box. Normal animals waited between six and seven minutes before they ventured into the centre to feed. However, mice whose serotonin receptor was switched on started to feed after one or two minutes. “This is important evidence indicating that the 5-HT1A receptor signalling pathway in the serotonin system is linked to anxiety,” concludes Masseck.

In the next step, the researcher intends to find out in what way depressive behaviour is affected by the activation of the 5-HT1A receptor. “If the animals are exposed to chronic stress, they develop symptoms similar to those in humans with depression,” describes Masseck. “They might, for example, withdraw from social interactions.”

However, just like in humans, this applies to only a certain percentage of the mice. “Not every individual who suffers from chronic stress or experiences negative situations develops depression,” points out Masseck. What happens in the serotonin system of animals that are susceptible to depression, as opposed to that of animals that do not present any depressive symptoms? This is what the researcher intends to find out by deploying the optogenetic methods described above; in addition, she is currently developing a custom-built serotonin sensor.

Olivia Masseck’s assumption is that her findings regarding the neuronal circuits and molecular mechanisms of anxiety and depression are applicable to humans. Mice have similar cell functions, and their nervous system has a similar structure. The neuroscientist expects that optogenetics will one day be deployed in human applications.

“Genetic manipulation of cells for the purpose of controlling them with light might sound like science fiction,” she says, “but I am convinced that optogenetics will be used in human applications in the next decades.” It could, for example, be utilised for deep brain stimulation in Parkinson’s patients, because it facilitates precise activation of the required signalling pathways, with fewer side effects, at that.

“In the first step, optogenetics will be used in therapy of retinal diseases,” believes Olivia Masseck. Researchers are currently conducting experiments aiming at restoring the visual function in blind mice.

Olivia Masseck is aware that her research raises ethical questions. “We have to discuss in which applications we want or don’t want to use these techniques,” she says. Her research demonstrates how easily the lines between science-fiction films and scientific research can blur.

Detect cancer hallmarks with targeted fluorescent probes.  

The smart iABP™ targeted imaging probes are based on cysteine cathepsin activity, which are highly expressed in tumor and tumor-associated cells of numerous cancers. Additionally, cathepsins are consistently expressed across multiple tumor types compared to other affinity based probes such as integrin or MMPs, which are inconsistently expressed.

The small molecule iABP™ probes are based on smart, activatable technology:

  • Penetrates tumor tissues quickly
  • Gives you superior target localization and retention at the proteolytic site
  • only fluorescences once it’s bound to the active target giving extremely low background fluorescence and high signal to noise ratio
  • Eliminates any need to wash prior to staining cells or tissue in ex vivo analysis.

The probes are suitable for use in non-invasive small animal imaging studies, live cell imaging, fluorescence microscopy, flow cytometry and SDS-PAGE applications.

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Reversal of Alzheimer Disease in Fruit Flies

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP



Reversal of AD in fruit flies

Transatlantic team reverses Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s symptoms in fruit flies

by Amirah Al Idrus | Apr 26, 2016

Scientists from the University of Leicester and the University of Maryland have reversed Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s symptoms by inhibiting an enzyme in fruit fly models, highlighting a new avenue to treat neurodegenerative diseases.

Maryland’s Robert Schwarcz and Leicester’s Flaviano Giorgini studied the amino acid tryptophan, which degrades in the body into several metabolites that have different effects on the nervous system. These include 3-hydroxykynurenine (3-HK), which can damage the nervous system, and kynurenic acid (KYNA), which can prevent nerve degeneration. The relative abundance of these two compounds in the brain could be critical in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease, the University of Maryland said in a statement.

3-HK and KYNA  exist in a balance between “good” and “bad” metabolites in the body. In neurodegenerative disease, the balance shifts toward the “bad,” Giorgini said in a statement. The researchers shifted the balance back toward “good” by giving genetically modified fruit flies a chemical that selectively inhibits the enzyme TDO, which controls the relationship between 3-HK and KYNA. This increased levels of the “protective” KYNA, and improved movement and lengthened life span in fruit flies genetically modified to model neurodegenerative disease.

Giorgini’s team at Leicester has previously used genetic approaches to inhibit TDO and another enzyme, KMO. The treatment lowered the levels of toxic tryptophan metabolites and reduced neuron loss in fruit fly models of Huntington’s disease.

It is estimated that 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and as many as 1 million have Parkinson’s. Current treatments may help to control symptoms but do not halt or delay disease progression. “Our hope is that by improving our knowledge of how these nerve cells become sick and die in the brain, we can help devise ways to interfere with these processes, and thereby either delay disease onset or prevent disease altogether,” Giorgini said in the Leicester statement. Giorgini’s next step will be to validate the work in mammalian models.

Meanwhile, a UC San Diego team recently spotlighted the dendritic spines of neurons as a possible target in Alzheimer’s. And The Wall Street Journalreported this week that seniors are clamoring to participate in a clinical trial to see if the diabetes drug metformin can stave off the diseases that come with aging, including cognitive decline.

– here’s a statement from the University of Maryland
– and here’s the University of Leicester’s statement
– read the study abstract


Tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO) inhibition ameliorates neurodegeneration by modulation of kynurenine pathway metabolites

Carlo BredaaKorrapati V. SathyasaikumarbShama Sograte IdrissiaFrancesca M. Notarangelob,
….., Robert Schwarczb, and Flaviano Giorginia,1


Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s (AD), Parkinson’s (PD), and Huntington’s (HD) present a significant and increasing burden on society. Perturbations in the kynurenine pathway (KP) of tryptophan degradation have been linked to the pathogenesis of these disorders, and thus manipulation of this pathway may have therapeutic relevance. Here we show that genetic inhibition of two KP enzymes—kynurenine-3-monooxygenase and tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO)—improved neurodegeneration and other disease symptoms in fruit fly models of AD, PD, and HD, and that alterations in levels of neuroactive KP metabolites likely underlie the beneficial effects. Furthermore, we find that inhibition of TDO using a drug-like compound reverses several disease phenotypes, underscoring the therapeutic promise of targeting this pathway in neurodegenerative disease.


Metabolites of the kynurenine pathway (KP) of tryptophan (TRP) degradation have been closely linked to the pathogenesis of several neurodegenerative disorders. Recent work has highlighted the therapeutic potential of inhibiting two critical regulatory enzymes in this pathway—kynurenine-3-monooxygenase (KMO) and tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO). Much evidence indicates that the efficacy of KMO inhibition arises from normalizing an imbalance between neurotoxic [3-hydroxykynurenine (3-HK); quinolinic acid (QUIN)] and neuroprotective [kynurenic acid (KYNA)] KP metabolites. However, it is not clear if TDO inhibition is protective via a similar mechanism or if this is instead due to increased levels of TRP—the substrate of TDO. Here, we find that increased levels of KYNA relative to 3-HK are likely central to the protection conferred by TDO inhibition in a fruit fly model of Huntington’s disease and that TRP treatment strongly reduces neurodegeneration by shifting KP flux toward KYNA synthesis. In fly models of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, we provide genetic evidence that inhibition of TDO or KMO improves locomotor performance and ameliorates shortened life span, as well as reducing neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s model flies. Critically, we find that treatment with a chemical TDO inhibitor is robustly protective in these models. Consequently, our work strongly supports targeting of the KP as a potential treatment strategy for several major neurodegenerative disorders and suggests that alterations in the levels of neuroactive KP metabolites could underlie several therapeutic benefits.

neurodegeneration, KMO, TDO, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease


The kynurenine pathway (KP), the major catabolic route of tryptophan (TRP) metabolism in mammals (Fig. 1), has been closely linked to the pathogenesis of several brain disorders (1). This pathway contains several neuroactive metabolites, including 3-hydroxykynurenine (3-HK), quinolinic acid (QUIN) and kynurenic acid (KYNA) (2). QUIN is a well-characterized endogenous neurotoxin that specifically activates N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, thereby inducing excitotoxicity (34). The metabolites 3-HK and QUIN are also neurotoxic via the generation of free radicals and oxidative stress (56). Conversely, KYNA—synthesized by kynurenine aminotransferases (KATs)—is neuroprotective through its antioxidant properties and antagonism of both the α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and the glycine coagonist site of the NMDA receptor (713). Levels of these metabolites are regulated at two critical points in the KP: (i) the initial, rate-limiting conversion of TRP into N-formylkynurenine by either tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO) or indoleamine-2,3-dioxygenase 1 and 2 (IDO1 and IDO2); and (ii) synthesis of 3-HK from kynurenine by the flavoprotein kynurenine-3-monoxygenase (KMO) (1).



Fig. 1.

Consequences of KP manipulation. KP metabolites and enzymatic steps are indicated in black, whereas the key KP enzymes TDO, KMO, and KATs are indicated in purple. The metabolites 3-HK and QUIN are neurotoxic (as indicated by red arrows), whereas KYNA and TRP are neuroprotective (as indicated by green arrows). Inhibition of TDO results in increased TRP levels, and either TDO or KMO inhibition leads to a reduction in the 3-HK/KYNA ratio (highlighted in blue). The enzyme 3-hydroxyanthranilic acid dioxygenase is not present in flies, and thus QUIN is not synthesized.

Alterations in levels of the KP metabolites have been observed in a broad range of brain disorders, including both neurodegenerative and psychiatric conditions (14). In neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s (HD), Parkinson’s (PD), and Alzheimer’s (AD), a shift toward increased synthesis of the neurotoxic metabolites QUIN and 3-HK relative to KYNA may contribute to disease (1). Indeed, in patients with HD and HD model mice, 3-HK and QUIN levels are increased in the neostriatum and cortex (1516). Moreover, KYNA levels are reduced in the striatum of patients with HD (17). Several studies have also found perturbation in KP metabolites in the blood and cerebrospinal fluid of patients with AD, with decreased levels of KYNA correlating with reduced cognitive performance (1819). Similarly, in the basal ganglia of patients with PD, a reduction in KYNA levels combined with increased 3-HK has been observed (2021).

Drosophila melanogaster has provided a useful model for interrogation of the KP in both normal physiology and in neurodegenerative disease (2223). In fruit flies, TDO and KMO are encoded by vermillion (v) andcinnabar (cn), respectively, and both are implicated in Drosophila eye color pigmentation and brain plasticity (2425). In flies, TDO is the sole enzyme that catalyzes the initial step of the KP, as IDO1 and IDO2 are not present (Fig. 1), and so provides a distinctive model for examining the role of this critical step in the pathway. Moreover, we have previously found that downregulating cn and v gene expression significantly reduces neurodegeneration in flies expressing a mutant huntingtin (HTT) fragment—the central causative insult underlying HD (22). We also observed that pharmacological manipulations that reduced the 3-HK/KYNA ratio were always associated with neuroprotection. Notably, reintroduction of physiological levels of 3-HK in HD flies that lacked this metabolite due to KMO inhibition was sufficient to abolish neuroprotection (22). Furthermore, in a Caenorhabditis elegans model of PD, genetic down-regulation of TDO ameliorates α-synuclein (aSyn) toxicity (26). This effect appeared to be independent of changes in the levels of serotonin or KP metabolites but was correlated with increased TRP levels. Supplementing worms with TRP also suppressed aSyn-dependent phenotypes (26). The present study was designed to further define the mechanism(s) that underlies the neuroprotection conferred by TRP treatment and TDO inhibition and to extend our analyses of the neuroprotective potential of the KP to fruit fly models of AD and PD.



Impairments in KP metabolism have been linked to several neurodegenerative disorders, and in particular to the pathogenesis of HD (37). Notably, increased levels of 3-HK and QUIN have been measured in the neostriatum and cortex of patients with early stage HD (15), and these changes are associated with an up-regulation of IDO1 transcription (38) and a reduction in the activity of KAT, which is critical for KYNA synthesis (17). These data in patients with HD are supported by observations in HD mice, which show increased cerebral KMO activity (39). We previously found that either genetic or pharmacological inhibition of KMO is protective in HD flies and leads to a corresponding increase in KYNA levels relative to 3-HK (22). Furthermore, we reported that KYNA treatment reduced neurodegeneration in these flies. Here, we have extended this work by generating transgenic flies that overexpress hKAT and thereby synthesize ∼20-fold more KYNA than control flies. This increased formation of KYNA reduced neurodegeneration and eclosion defects in HD model flies. Furthermore, KMO inhibition by RNAi revealed beneficial effects in several behavioral and disease-relevant outcome measures, including larval crawling, longevity, climbing, and rhabdomere degeneration, in AD and PD model flies. These results strongly support the notion that KMO inhibition has relevance as a treatment strategy in a broad range of neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, these data also suggest that the design of small molecules capable of increasing KAT activity could have therapeutic relevance for neurodegenerative disorders.

The present results, demonstrating that both genetic and pharmacological inhibition of TDO provides robust neuroprotection in fly models of AD and PD, also confirmed and extended the results of our previous study, which had identified TDO as a candidate drug target in HD flies (22). These protective effects are associated with a decrease in the 3-HK/KYNA ratio, i.e., a shift toward increased KYNA synthesis. Work inC. elegans has revealed that TDO inhibition is also protective in models of proteotoxicity, although amelioration of the phenotypes occurred independently of changes in the levels of KP metabolites and was instead associated with elevated TRP levels (26). Although the underlying mechanism remained unclear, the favorable effects of high TRP levels in the nematode were substantiated by the fact that TRP treatment conferred robust protection from disease-related phenotypes (Fig. 1). In the present study, too, TRP supplementation of the diet was effective, ameliorating rhabdomere degeneration and eclosion defects in HD flies. However, TRP feeding was also associated with a reduction in the 3-HK/KYNA ratio, suggesting that the protective effects of the amino acid may be linked to an increase in the production of the neuroprotective metabolite KYNA (Fig. 1). Indeed, partial inhibition of KYNA synthesis in TDO-deficient flies proved sufficient to completely reverse neuroprotection. In addition, restoration of physiological 3-HK levels in TDO-deficient HD flies did not reverse neuroprotection, in contrast to KMO-deficient flies (22). In primary neurons, 3-HK toxicity is dependent upon its uptake via neutral amino acid transporters, and coapplication of TRP can block this toxicity by competing for the same transporters (6). Thus, it is possible that the vast excess of TRP observed in the heads of HTT93Q v−/− flies (approximately eightfold versus controls) competes with 3-HK for rhabdomere uptake, thereby requiring hyperphysiological levels of 3-HK to reverse TDO-dependent neuroprotection. A similar mechanism may also contribute to the neuroprotection observed with TRP treatment in general. Herein, we have also found that RNAi knockdown of either cn or v does not increase TRP levels, and thus the neuroprotection observed in the AD and PD flies strongly correlates with a decrease in the 3-HK/KYNA ratio. The mechanism causing TRP treatment to favor KYNA synthesis over the formation of 3-HK in Drosophila, as well as the unexpected qualitative differences in the effects of TDO inhibition and TRP administration on KP metabolism between fruit flies and nematodes, clearly requires further investigation.

Interestingly, we found that QUIN—which is not normally synthesized in fruit flies (30)—potentiated neurodegeneration in HD flies, and reversed the protective effects of KMO inhibition. As the same QUIN treatment did not cause neuron loss in wild-type flies, mutant HTT may potentiate vulnerability by enhancing NMDA receptor function (4041) and/or by increasing susceptibility to toxic free radicals (42), i.e., by augmenting the two major mechanisms known to be involved in QUIN-induced neurotoxicity (43). If verified in mammals, a reduction in brain QUIN levels—along with a decrease in 3-HK levels—relative to KYNA could therefore be especially promising in the treatment of HD (44). Our observation of increased levels of QUIN in HTT93Q versus WT flies is enigmatic, but may be due to altered feeding behavior, increased permeability of the blood–brain barrier (4546), or differences in KP metabolism, and would be interesting to explore in future studies.

In conclusion, the present set of experiments further validates the hypothesis that KP metabolism is causally linked to neuronal viability and that modulation of the KP constitutes a promising therapeutic strategy for a variety of major neurodegenerative disorders. Notably, we provide the first genetic evidence to our knowledge that KMO inhibition is protective in animal models of PD and AD and that pharmacological targeting of TDO is also neuroprotective. We have clarified the mechanism underlying the protective effects of TDO inhibition, which will stimulate efforts to target this step of the KP in neurodegenerative disease. These results, together with supportive studies in flies (47) and rodents (48), raise the possibility that inhibition of TDO and KMO—or combinatorial treatment—may offer therapeutic advantages. The availability of new TDO inhibitors (4950), and access to the crystal structures of both TDO (51) and KMO (52), should allow further testing of these hypotheses in the near future.





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