Tag Archives: Cassava Sciences

The science behind Cassava Sciences (SAVA)

I certainly hope Cassava Sciences new drug Sumifilam for Alzheimer’s disease works for several reasons

l. It represents a new approach to Alzheimer’s not involving getting rid of the plaque which has failed miserably

2. The disease is terrible and I’ve watched it destroy patients, family members and friends

3. I’ve known one of the principals (Lindsay Burns) of Cassava since she was a teenager and success couldn’t happen to a nicer person. For details please see https://luysii.wordpress.com/2021/02/02/montana-girl-does-good-real-good/.

Unfortunately even if Sumifilam works I doubt that it will be widely used because of the side effects (unknown at present) it is very likely to cause.  I certainly hope I’m wrong.

Here is the science behind the drug.  We’ll start with the protein the drug is supposed to affect — filamin A, a very large protein (2,603 amino acids to be exact).  I’ve known about it for years because it crosslinks actin in muscle, and I read everything I could about it, starting back in the day when I ran a muscular dystrophy clinic in Montana.  

Filamin binds actin by its amino terminal domain.  It forms a dimerization domain at its carboxy terminal end.  In between are 23 repeats of 96 amino acids which resemble immunoglobulin — forming a rod 800 Angstroms long.  The dimer forms a V with the actin binding domain at the two tips of the V, making it clear how it could link actin filaments together. 

Immunoglobulins are good at binding things and Lindsay knows of 90 different proteins filamin A binds to.  This is an enormous potential source of trouble.  

As one might imagine, filamin A could have a lot of conformations in addition to the V, and the pictures shown in https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2099194/.

One such altered (from the V) conformation binds to the alpha7 nicotinic cholinergic receptor on the surface of neurons and Toll-Like Receptor 4 (TLR4) inside the cell.

Abeta42, the toxic peptide, has been known for years to bind tightly to the alpha7 nicotinic receptor — they say in the femtoMolar (10^-15 Molar) range, although I have my doubts as to whether such tiny concentration values are meaningful.  Let’s just say the binding is tight. 

The altered conformation of filamin A makes the binding of Abeta to alpha7even tighter. 

In some way, the tight binding causes signaling inside the cell (mechanism unspecified) to hyperphosphorylate the tau protein, which is more directly correlated with dementia in Alzheimer’s disease than the number of senile plaques. 

So what does Sumifilam actually do — it changes the ‘altered’ conformation of filamin A back to normal, decreasing Abeta signaling inside the cell.  

How do they know the conformation of filamin A has changed?  They haven’t done cryoEM or Xray crystallography on the protein.  The only evidence for a change in conformation, is a change in the electrophoretic mobility (which is pretty good evidence, but I’d like to know what conformation is changed to what).

Notice just how radical this proposed mechanism of action actually is.  The nicotinic cholinergic receptor is an ion channel, yet somehow the effect of Sumifilam is on how the channel binds to another protein, rather than how it conducts ions. 

However they have obtained some decent results with the drug in a very carefully done (though small — 13 patients) study in J. Prev Alz. Dis. 2020 (http://dx.doi.org/10.14283/ipad2020.6) and the FDA this year has given the company the go ahead for a larger phase III trial.

Addendum 26 March: The above link didn’t work.  This one should — it’s from Lindsay herself


Why, despite rooting for the company and Lindsay am I doubtful that the drug will find wide use.  We are altering the conformation of a protein which interacts with at least 90 other proteins (Lindsay Burns, Personal Communication).  It seems inconceivable that there won’t be other effects in the neuron (or elsewhere in the body) due to changes in the interaction with the other 89 proteins filaminA interacts with.  Some of them are likely to be toxic. 

Montana girl does good, real good !

Montana is flyover country. Nobody smart lives there. We all know that.

But when I got there in 1972 an issue of Science contained an article by State Legislator about a modification of general relativity — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Nordtvedt.  MIT grad, Harvard Junior Fellow etc. etc. 

Then there was the son of a doc I practiced with in Billings.   Honors physics at Billings Senior high school placed him in 2nd year physics at Harvard, from which he graduated in 4 years obtaining a masters in physics as well. 

Then there was a local boy, the Thiokol engineer who predicted the Challenger disaster and was over-ruled. 

The great thing about Montana was that no one ever bragged about this sort of thing.  There were so few people, that no one felt compelled to tell you about themselves, you’d find out about them soon enough.  The classic example was an excellent surgeon and friend I practiced with for 15 years.  Only on reading his obituary last year did I find out that he had a Fulbright after college.

Which brings me to Lindsay, a girl I first met when she was a high school student.  The family were ranchers with a beautiful spread on the east face of the Crazy mountains north of Big Timber.  I’m not sure how we first met — I don’t think I saw any of them as a patient.  But we all became friends and the galactic premiere of a cello sonata I wrote with a 19 year old secretary in a lumberyard was in their living room. 

The two least important things about Lindsay are that she was a centerfold and an olympic silver medalist in woman’s two person crew.  Don’t get excited about the centerfold bit, she was fully clothed, but for some reason the Harvard Alumni magazine had a 2 page picture on a field of daisys of her back in the 80’s when she was there. 

Lindsay went on to get a PhD from Cambridge and her work and that of her husband may have come up with something useful for Alzheimer’s disease.  I’ll talk about the science behind it in a future post.  But when the news broke today, the stock of her company hit 70  (it was around 7 at the beginning of the year).  For details please see — https://finance.yahoo.com/m/49fa6153-4235-3866-bff2-5a35470e54da/why-cassava-sciences-stock.html.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer girl.  Of course it didn’t just happen.  Decades of hard work went into it.  So as you fly across the country, look down.  Some people down there might be even smarter than you are.