Barking up the wrong therapeutic tree in Alzheimer’s disease

Billions have been spent by big pharma (and lost) trying to get rid of the senile plaque of Alzheimer’s disease.  The assumption has always been that the plaque is the smoking gun killing neurons.  But it’s just an assumption which a recent paper has turned on its ear [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 116 23040 – 23049 ’19 ]

It involves a protein, likely to be a new face even to Alzheimer’s cognoscenti.  The protein is called SERF1A (in man) and MOAG-4 in yeast. It enhances amyloid formation, the major component of the senile plaque.  SERF1A is clearly doing something important as it has changed little from the humble single yeast cell to man.

The major component of the senile plaque is the aBeta peptide of 40 and/or 42 amino acids.  It polymerizes to form the amyloid of the plaque.  The initial step of amyloid formation is the hardest, getting a bunch of Abeta peptides into the right conformation (e.g. the nucleus) so others can latch on to it and form the amyloid fiber.   It is likely that the monomers and oligomers of Abeta are what is killing neurons, not the plaques, otherwise why would natural selection/evolution keep SERF1A around?

So, billions of dollars later, getting rid of the senile plaque turns out to be a bad idea. What we want to do is increase SERF1A activity, to sop up the monomers and oligomers. It is a 180 degree shift in our thinking. That’s the executive summary, now for the fascinating chemistry involved.

First the structure of SERF1A — that is to say its amino acid sequence.  (For the nonChemists — proteins are linear string of amino acids, just as a word is a linear string of characters — the order is quite important — just as united and untied mean two very different things). There are only 68 amino acids in SERF1A of which 14 are lysine 9 are arginine 5 Glutamic acid and 5 Aspartic acid.  That’s interesting in itself, as we have 20 different amino acids, and if they occurred randomly you’d expect about 3 -4 of each.  The mathematicians among you should enjoy figuring out just how improbable this compared to random assortment. So just four amino acids account for 33 of the 68 in SERF1A  Even more interesting is the fact that all 4 are charged at body pH — lysine and arginine are positively charged because their nitrogen picks up protons, and glutamic and aspartic acid are negatively charged  giving up the proton.

This means that positive and negative can bind to each other (something energetically quite favorable).  How many ways are there for the 10 acids to bind to the 23 bases?  Just 23 x 22 x 21 X 20 X 19 X 18 x 17 x 16 x 15 x 14 or roughly 20^10 ways.  This means that SERF1A doesn’t have a single structure, but many of them.  It is basically a disordered protein.

The paper shows exactly this, that several conformations of SERF1 are seen in solution, and that it binds to Abeta forming a ‘fuzzy complex’, in which the number of Abetas and SERF1s are not fixed — e.g. there is no fixed stoichiometry — something chemists are going to have to learn to deal with — see — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2018/12/16/bye-bye-stoichiometry/.  Also different conformations of SERF1A are present in the fuzzy complex, explaining why it has such a peculiar amino acid composition.  Clever no?  Let’s hear it for the blind watchmaker or whatever you want to call it.

The paper shows that SERF1 increases the rate at which Abeta forms the nucleus of the amyloid fiber.  It does not help the fiber grow.  This means that the fiber is good and the monomers and oligomers are bad.  Not only that but SERF1 has exactly the same effect with alpha-synuclein, the main protein of the Lewy body of Parkinsonism.

So the paper represents a huge paradigm shift in our understanding of the cause of at least 2 bad neurological diseases.   Even more importantly, the paper suggests a completely new way to attack them.

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