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S. Gauthier1, P.S. Aisen2, J. Cummings3, M.J. Detke5, F.M. Longo6, R. Raman2, M. Sabbagh4, L. Schneider7, R. Tanzi8, P. Tariot9, M. Weiner10, J. Touchon11, B.Vellas12 and the EU/US CTAD Task Force*


* EU/US/CTAD TASK FORCE: Susan Abushakra (Framingham); John Alam (Boston); Sandrine Andrieu (Toulouse); Anu Bansal (Simsbury); Monika Baudler (Basel); Joanne Bell (Wilmington); Mickaël Beraud (Zaventem); Tobias Bittner (Basel); Samantha Budd Haeberlein (Cambridge); Szofia Bullain (Basel); Marc Cantillon (Gilbert); Maria Carrillo (Chicago); Carmen Castrillo-Viguera (Cambridge); Ivan Cheung (Woodcliff Lake); Julia Coelho (San Francisco); Daniel Di Giusto (Basel); Rachelle Doody (South San Francisco); John Dwyer (Washington); Michael Egan (North Wales); Colin Ewen (Slough); Charles Fisher (San Francisco); Michael Gold (North Chicago); Harald Hampel (Woodcliff Lake) ; Ping He (Cambridge) ; Suzanne Hendrix (Salt Lake City) ; David Henley (Titusville) ; Michael Irizarry (Woodcliff Lake); Atsushi Iwata (Tokyo); Takeshi Iwatsubo (Tokyo); Michael Keeley (South San Francisco); Geoffrey Kerchner (South San Francisco); Gene Kinney (San Francisco); Hartmuth Kolb (Titusville); Marie Kosco-Vilbois (Lausanne); Lynn Kramer (Westport); Ricky Kurzman (Woodcliff Lake); Lars Lannfelt (Uppsala); John Lawson (Malvern); Jinhe Li (Gilbert); Mark Mintun (Philadelphia); Vaidrius Navikas (Valby); Gerald Novak (Titusville); Gunilla Osswald (Stockholm); Susanne Ostrowitzki (South San Francisco); Anton Porsteinsson (Rochester); Ivana Rubino (Cambridge); Stephen Salloway (Providence); Rachel Schindler (New York); Hiroshi Sekiya (Malvern); Dennis Selkoe (Boston); Eric Siemers (Zionsville); John Sims (Indianapolis); Lisa Sipe (San Marcos); Olivier Sol (Lausanne); Reisa Sperling (Boston); Andrew Stephens (Berlin); Johannes Streffer (Braine-l’Alleud); Joyce Suhy (Newark); Chad Swanson (Woodcliff Lake); Gilles Tamagnan (New Haven); Edmond Teng (South San Francisco); Martin Tolar (Framingham); Martin Traber (Basel); Andrea Vergallo (Woodcliff Lake); Christian Von Hehn (Cambridge); George Vradenburg (Washington); Judy Walker (Singapore) ; Glen Wunderlich (Ridgefield); Roy Yaari (Indianapolis); Haichen Yang (North Wales); Wagner Zago (San Francisco); Thomas Zoda (Austin)

1. McGill Center for Studies in Aging, Verdun, QC, Canada; 2. Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute (ATRI), Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, San Diego, CA, USA; 3. Department of Brain Health, School of Integrated Health Sciences, University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), USA; 4. Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas, NV, USA; 5. Cortexyme, South San Francisco, CA, USA; 6. Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford CA USA; 7. University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, CA USA; 8. Harvard University, Boston, MA USA; 9. Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, Phoenix AZ USA; 10. University of California, San Francisco, CA USA; 11. Montpellier University, INSERM 1061, Montpellier, France; 12. Gerontopole, INSERM U1027, Alzheimer’s Disease Research and Clinical Center, Toulouse University Hospital, Toulouse, France

Corresponding Author: Serge Gauthier, McGill Center for Studies in Aging, Verdun QC, Canada,

J Prev Alz Dis 2020;3(7):152-157
Published online April 6, 2020,



While amyloid-targeting therapies continue to predominate in the Alzheimer’s disease (AD) drug development pipeline, there is increasing recognition that to effectively treat the disease it may be necessary to target other mechanisms and pathways as well. In December 2019, The EU/US CTAD Task Force discussed these alternative approaches to disease modification in AD, focusing on tau-targeting therapies, neurotrophin receptor modulation, anti-microbial strategies, and the innate immune response; as well as vascular approaches, aging, and non-pharmacological approaches such as lifestyle intervention strategies, photobiomodulation and neurostimulation. The Task Force proposed a general strategy to accelerate the development of alternative treatment approaches, which would include increased partnerships and collaborations, improved trial designs, and further exploration of combination therapy strategies.

Key words: Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, tau, tauopathy, neurotrophins, neuroinflammation, lifestyle intervention, photobiomodulation, neurostimulation, geroscience.



Following a discussion on lessons learned from clinical trials of amyloid-based therapies for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) (1), on December 4, 2019, the EU/US CTAD Task Force turned their attention to alternative approaches for disease modification. These strategies do not negate the validity of the amyloid hypothesis; indeed, recently discovered genetic evidence continues to support the centrality of amyloid in the neurodegenerative processes that lead to AD (2–4). However, genetic and other studies point to additional mechanisms and pathways both upstream and downstream of amyloidogenesis, which may provide druggable therapeutic targets with potential for disease modification.
Neuropathological and imaging studies confirm the complexity and heterogeneity of AD (5) Mixed pathologies are evident in most individuals with a clinical diagnosis of AD (6), and in early clinical studies of amyloid-targeting drugs, a significant proportion of trial participants were shown to have no detectable amyloid. Nonetheless, among putative disease-modifying AD drugs in clinical trials, 40% target amyloid either with small molecules or immunotherapies. Another 18% target tau. Other mechanisms targeted for disease modification include neuroprotection, anti-inflammatory effects, growth factor promotion, and/or metabolic effects (7). Additional trials are underway assessing non-pharmacological approaches to treat AD, including lifestyle interventions and neurostimulation.


Anti-tau therapies

The microtubule-associated protein tau (MAPT, commonly referred to as tau) is the main constituent of the neurofibrillary tangles that are one of the two primary pathological hallmarks of AD. Its normal function is to stabilize microtubules and thus regulate intracellular trafficking, but in AD and other tauopathies, the protein undergoes post-translational modifications that lead to the development of a variety of oligomeric species, tangles, and neuropil threads that may be deposited as aggregates in specific brain regions, disrupting normal cytoskeletal function and protein degradation pathways (8). In the human brain, six isoforms of tau are present, which are classified as either 3R or 4R tau based on the number of repeat domains. Approximately equal levels of 3R and 4R tau are expressed in the normal brain; however, 3R:4R tau imbalances are seen in brains of individuals with tauopathies. In AD, isoform imbalances vary across brain regions and disease progression.
Unlike levels of amyloid beta protein (Aβ), which correlate poorly with cognition, tau levels are associated with both neurodegeneration and cognitive deficits (9). Tau pathology has been shown to follow a characteristic progression pathway in the brain, starting in areas responsible for learning and memory before spreading to cortical areas involved in other cognitive functions (10).
The complex progression of tau pathological events provides multiple potential opportunities for intervention. Anti-tau drugs in development target tau expression, aggregation, degradation, protein modifications (e.g. phosphatase modifiers, kinase inhibitors), microtubule stabilization, and extracellular tau inter-neuronal spread (8). As of February 2019, clinical trials were underway for 17 tau-targeting drugs – seven small molecules and 10 biologics (7). Only one drug, LMTX (TRx0237) – a reduced form of methylene blue, and a tau protein aggregation inhibitor — is currently being tested in a Phase 3 trial in early AD at 8 – 16 mg/day doses versus placebo (NCT03446001). This trial follows two Phase 3 trials in mild and mild to moderate AD (NCT01689246, NCT01689233) and a trial in behavioral variant FTD (NCT01626378) with higher doses, which showed negative results in the primary analysis of clinical efficacy. Biogen has a Phase 2 study underway of the anti-tau agent BIIB092 (gosuranemab) in participants with MCI due to AD or mild AD (NCT03352557). Phase 2 studies in biologically defined populations are also being conducted. For example, Roche/Genentech is conducting two Phase 2 studies of the anti-tau monoclonal antibody semorinemab in participants with prodromal or probable AD confirmed by amyloid positron emission tomography (PET) or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) testing (NCT03828747). Clinical trials of anti-tau therapeutics have been conducted in other tauopathies, although two recent Phase 2 studies of anti-tau monoclonal antibody therapies (Abbvie’s AABV-8E12 and Biogen’s gosuranemab) in participants with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) were recently terminated for lack of efficacy (NCT2985879 and NCT03068468, respectively). Non-clinical studies of innovative anti-tau therapies are underway, such as a study that uses engineered tau-degrading intrabodies to target intracellular tau (11).
It is also theoretically possible that early anti-amyloid intervention may attenuate or even preclude downstream effects on tau. That is, non-tau-based treatments could have implications for tau and tangles.
Several challenges face developers of tau-based therapeutics. For tau reduction approaches, it is not known how much reduction is needed, how quickly and safely it can be accomplished, when different interventions might be effective during the course of the disease, and how long drug levels must be maintained to get an effect. Tau biology is complicated with numerous fragments and post-translational modifications associated with tauopathies, yet it remains unclear which tau species are toxic. Moreover, the targets, mechanisms and cellular locations through which such tau species promote degeneration remain to be identified. These issues make the design of clinical trials especially complicated and highlight the need for better tau biomarkers. Recent progress made in the development of tau ligands for PET may improve the efficiency of clinical trials, since tau-PET enables early diagnosis and tracking of disease progression, identifying individuals at risk for faster cognitive decline, and rapidly assessing pharmacodynamic effects of treatments (12). Plasma levels of total tau (t-tau) and neurofilament light (NfL) have been developed as biomarkers of neurodegeneration (13). Still needed are biomarkers that distinguish 3R from 4R tau and that quantify the many different tau species.


Neurotrophic strategies

The neurodegeneration that occurs in AD results from a complicated molecular and biochemical signaling network, likely triggered by Aβ and eventually leading to synaptic dysfunction, loss of dendritic spines, and neurite degeneration (14). Growth factors called neurotrophins regulate neuronal survival, development, and function by binding to cell surface receptors. The signaling networks regulated by these receptors have extensive overlap with those associated with neurodegeneration and modulation of neurotrophin receptors has thus been proposed as a potential therapeutic strategy (15). The Longo lab and others have zeroed in on the p75 neurotrophin receptor (p75NTR) as a therapeutic target for AD. Their working hypothesis, supported by human genomic and proteomic data, along with animal studies is that the p75NTR modulates the complex AD degenerative signaling network and that downregulating its signaling renders oligomeric Aβ unable to promote degeneration (16, 17).
Longo and colleagues have developed small molecule ligands that bind to p75NTR, activate survival-promoting signaling, and prevent Aβ-induced neurodegeneration and synaptic impairment (18). One molecule in particular, LM11A-31, has been shown to block Aβ-induced tau phosphorylation, misfolding, oligomerization and mislocalization; reverse late-stage spine degeneration; reverse synaptic impairment; prevent microglial dysfunction; and in wildtype mice suppress age-related basal forebrain cholinergic neuron degeneration (18–20). There is evidence that dendritic spine preservation is associated with cognitive resilience (21).
A Phase 2a pilot study sponsored by PharmatrophiX Inc. and funded in part by the National institute on Aging (NIA) and the Alzheimer Drug Discovery Foundation is underway, testing oral LM11A-31 in participants with mild-to-moderate AD and amyloid positivity assessed by CSF Aβ screening (NCT03069014). With an expected completion in the third quarter of 2020, the trial will assess safety and tolerability as well as cognitive, clinical, biomarker, and imaging exploratory endpoints. LM11A-31 may be effective in other disorders such as Huntington’s disease (22), diabetes-induced macular oedema (23), and traumatic brain injury (24).


Anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory strategies

Neuropathological studies of the AD brain show not only amyloid plaques and tau-based tangles but neuroinflammation as well. Indeed, according to the innate immune hypothesis, plaques, tangles, and neuroinflammation orchestrate an innate immune response that has evolved to protect the brain against microbial infection, with Aβ itself acting as an antimicrobial peptide (AMP) in the brain (25, 26). This hypothesis suggests that subclinical microbial infections in the brain rapidly ‘seed’ Aβ to trap microbes, and that this process drives Aβ neurotoxicity and opsonization (i.e, an ‘eat me’ signal for microglia to remove axons and synapses) (25). Tangles form in response to microbe invasion to block neurotropic microbe spread. AD risk genes are implicated in the innate immune protection hypothesis, which posits that AD-associated genetic risk variants were evolutionarily conserved to keep Aβ deposition, tangle formation, and gliosis/neuroinflammation on a ‘hair trigger’ as a means of protecting a subset of the human species in the advent of a major epidemic of brain infection.
The molecular pathways involved in these processes provide multiple potential therapeutic targets, including the use of anti-viral drugs, antibiotics, blockade of toxic microbial products, and immunization for prevention of subclinical infections; secretase inhibitors and immunotherapies to prevent Aβ seeding; kinase or phosphatase inhibitors to prevent the development of pathological forms of tau, and anti-inflammatories to suppress neuroinflammation. Gut microbiota may also play a role in AD pathogenesis by disrupting neuroinflammation and metabolic homeostasis, thus representing another potential intervention target (27).
One example of a bacterial hypothesis and associated strategy is based on the discovery of the bacterium Porphyromonas gingivalis (Pg), most commonly associated with periodontitis, in the brains of AD patients. Toxic virulence factors from the bacterium, proteases called gingipains, have been identified in AD brains, and gingipain levels correlated with tau and ubiquitin pathology. Oral infection of mice with Pg resulted in brain colonization, increased Aβ1-42, and loss of hippocampal neurons, effects that were blocked by COR388, a small-molecule irreversible lysine- gingipain inhibitor. COR388 significantly lowered markers of inflammation in plasma as well as AD-associated APOE fragments in CSF in a small Phase 1b study in mild-moderate AD patients (28), and a large Phase 2/3 study is underway with an interim readout expected in Q4 2020 and topline data in Q4 2021 (NCT03823404).
A retrospective cohort study showed that Herpes simplex virus (HSV)-infected subjects had a nearly 3-fold increased risk of AD but that treatment with anti-viral drugs such as acyclovir brought risk to non-infected levels (29). There is an ongoing phase 2 trial of valacyclovir for patients with mild AD and positive titers for HSV1 and HSV2 (NCT03282916). Trials in AD using doxycycline and minocycline did not show efficacy (30).
Anti-inflammatory strategies are also being pursued. A Phase 2 study underway in participants with late mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or early AD aims to protect neurons against oxidative stress using two small molecule drugs — tauroursodexycholic acid (TUDCA) and sodium phenylbutyrate — repurposed by Amylyx Pharmaceutical as AMX0035 (NCT03533257). Yet another Phase 3 study sponsored by AZTherapies, Inc. aims to reduce neuroinflammation by converting microglia from a proinflammatory to phagocytic state to promote clearance of Aβ by using a combination of two marketed drugs, cromolyn and ibuprofen, known as ALZT-OP1 (NCT02547818) (31).


Lifestyle intervention strategies and other non-pharmacological approaches

Multiple epidemiological studies in Europe, the United States, and Canada investigating an observed decline in the prevalence of dementia in recent years have suggested that dementia may be preventable by targeting lifestyle risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, depression, low education, and social isolation (32). Clinical studies are now beginning to support this assertion. The Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial –Memory and Cognition in Decreased Hypertension (SPRINT MIND) study suggested that intensive blood pressure control may reduce the risk of probable dementia and mild cognitive impairment (MCI), although the results were not statistically significant, in part because the SPRINT trial was terminated early based on the significant benefits of blood pressure control on cardiovascular outcomes. The study may have been underpowered for cognitive endpoints (33). Further study is warranted given that a 10-year study in France showed that hypertension was associated with poorer cognition in middle-aged individuals (34).
Multi-domain strategies have focused on lifestyle factors. For example, the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER) trial demonstrated improved or stabilized cognitive function in participants that adhered to an intervention combining diet, physical exercise, cognitive training, and vascular risk monitoring (35). The Multidomain Alzheimer Prevention Trial (MAPT) tested an intervention combining cognitive and physical intervention along with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in frail, non-demented, community dwelling adults (36, 37). While MAPT failed to demonstrate significant slowing of cognitive decline, subgroup analyses suggested that individuals with low plasma levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid) have more cognitive decline, which appeared to be normalized with omega-3 supplementation(38). The benefits of omega-3 supplementation appeared to be greater in amyloid-positive individuals and in those with increased cardiovascular risk scores (39, 40). Based on the results from FINGER, MAPT, and other multidomain intervention studies, many additional studies are planned, including worldwide FINGERS studies (WW-FINGERS), a network of studies throughout the world that are adapting the multidomain strategies of the FINGER trial to different populations (41).
In addition to physical and cognitive activity, other non-pharmacological strategies are being investigated for their potential to slow cognitive decline and prevent dementia. For example, photobiomodulation (PBM) has been shown to be neuroprotective. In animal models PBM improved memory and normalized markers of AD, oxidative stress and neuroinflammation (42). A pilot study is now underway in participants with probable AD (NCT03405662).
Non-invasive neurostimulation with techniques such as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) has been proposed as a treatment for AD (43). Other technological approaches including assistive technologies, smart technologies, and telemedicine may improve the treatment and care of people with AD.



Given that aging is the major risk factor for AD, therapeutic strategies aimed at the diseases of aging (e.g., frailty) may slow cognitive decline and the development of dementia (44) Considerable research is underway to investigate the relationship between biological aging and neurodegenerative disease. These efforts have coalesced in the emerging field of geroscience (44), which explores whether the physiological hallmarks of aging such as mitochondrial dysfunction, loss of proteostasis, increased cellular senescence, and stem cell exhaustion may contribute to the development of AD pathology and neurodegeneration (45). Identification of biomarkers of aging and elucidation of how the molecular pathways of aging and AD intersect could advance the identification of novel therapeutic targets and next-generation therapies, such as the use of mesenchymal stem cells (46). The links between aging and AD are being explored as one element of the INSPIRE Research Initiative (Barreto JFA in press).


Conclusions/moving forward

While the AD drug development pipeline continues to be dominated by Aβ-targeting therapies, there is increasing recognition that addressing the complexity of AD may require multiple agents and may need to start in early disease stage before pathology becomes irreversible. A “deep biology” view, such as that proposed by advocates of p75NTR modulation, posits that key ‘hub’ targets may enable modulation of multiple mechanisms (e.g. resilience to both Aβ and tau) and that key components of pathology could be reversible (e.g. spines, synaptic function). A single treatment could thus promote synaptic function and slow progression and prevent upstream tau aggregation and oligomer formation.
Given the importance of tau in the development of AD, and reflecting the recently proposed Research Framework (47), CTAD Task Force members advocated assessment of both Aβ and tau levels in all clinical trials. The A-T+N+ AD phenotype is common and should be targeted for anti-tau trials. A suggestion was made to name this phenotype Dementia Associated and Neurofibrillary tangle Neuroimaging Abnormality (DANNA). Tau imaging may provide a biological outcome, at least in Phase 2 studies, although the Task Force recognized that amyloid and/or tau PET imaging adds substantial subject and trial burden and cost. Other suggestions that could accelerate the development of anti-tau therapies include using basket designs that include participants with other tauopathies such as frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), and corticobasal degeneration (CBD). While such trials would include participants with heterogeneous presentations, an outcome assessment such as Goal Attainment Scaling (GAS) could enable capture of clinically meaningful outcomes from diverse participants. This tool enables patients, caregivers, and clinicians, to set goals for treatment using a standardized guided interview, followed by an assessment of whether those goals have been attained (48, 49).
The Task Force suggested that combination therapy may be required to tackle such a complex disease as AD (50). They also advocated employing other innovative clinical trial methodologies to accelerate development of alternative approaches.
The Task Force proposed a general strategy to accelerate the development of alternative treatment approaches, which would include:
• Increased partnerships in the pre-competitive space with increased sharing of granular level data, shared biomarkers, statistical approaches, information on site performance
• Innovative trial design
• More collaborative approaches to recruitment and retention of participants for clinical trials with a focus on participation of representative populations.


Acknowledgements: The authors thank Lisa J. Bain for assistance in the preparation of this manuscript.

Conflicts of interest: The Task Force was partially funded by registration fees from industrial participants. These corporations placed no restrictions on this work. Dr. Gauthier is a member of scientific advisory boards for Biogen, Boehringer-Ingelheim, and TauRx; and a member of the DSMB for ADCS, ATRI, and Banner Health; Dr. Aisen reports grants from Janssen, grants from NIA, grants from FNIH, grants from Alzheimer’s Association, grants from Eisai, personal fees from Merck, personal fees from Biogen, personal fees from Roche, personal fees from Lundbeck, personal fees from Proclara, personal fees from Immunobrain Checkpoint, outside the submitted work; Dr. Cummings is a consultant for Acadia, Actinogen, AgeneBio, Alkahest, Alzheon, Annovis, Avanir, Axsome, Biogen, Cassava, Cerecin, Cerevel, Cognoptix, Cortexyme, EIP Pharma, Eisai, Foresight, Gemvax, Green Valley, Grifols, Karuna, Nutricia, Orion, Otsuka, Probiodrug, ReMYND, Resverlogix, Roche, Samumed, Samus Therapeutics, Third Rock, Signant Health, Sunovion, Suven, United Neuroscience pharmaceutical and assessment companies, and the Alzheimer Drug Discovery Foundation; and owns stock in ADAMAS, BioAsis, MedAvante, QR Pharma, and United Neuroscience. Dr. Detke reports personal fees, non-financial support and other from Cortexyme, during the conduct of the study; personal fees and other from Embera, personal fees and other from Evecxia, personal fees from NIH, outside the submitted work; Dr Kramer is an employee of Eisai Company, Ltd; Dr Longo has equity in and consults for PharmatrophiX, a company focused on the development of small molecule modulators for neurotrophin receptors. He is also a co-inventor on related patent applications. Dr. Raman reports grants from NIH, grants from Eli Lilly, grants from Eisai, outside the submitted work; Dr Sabbagh reports personal fees from Allergan, personal fees from Biogen, personnal fees from Grifols, personal fees from vTV Therapeutics, personal fees from Sanofi, personal fees from Neurotrope, personal fees from Cortexyme, other from Neurotrope, other from uMethod, other from Brain Health Inc, other from Versanum Inc, other from Optimal Cognitive Health Company, outside the submitted work; Dr. Schneider reports grants and personal fees from Eli Lilly, personal fees from Avraham, Ltd, personal fees from Boehringer Ingelheim, grants and personal fees from Merck, personal fees from Neurim, Ltd, personal fees from Neuronix, Ltd, personal fees from Cognition, personal fees from Eisai, personal fees from Takeda, personal fees from vTv, grants and personal fees from Roche/Genentech, grants from Biogen, grants from Novartis, personal fees from Abbott, grants from Biohaven, grants from Washington Univ/ NIA DIAN-TU, personal fees from Samus, outside the submitted work; Dr. Tanzi is a consultant and shareholder in AZTherapies, Amylyx, Promis, Neurogenetic Pharmaceuticals, Cerevance, and DRADS Capital; Dr. Tariot reports personal fees from Acadia , personal fees from AC Immune, personal fees from Axsome, personal fees from BioXcel, personal fees from Boehringer-Ingelheim, personal fees from Brain Test Inc., personal fees from Eisai, personal fees from eNOVA, personal fees from Gerontological Society of America, personal fees from Otuska & Astex, personal fees from Syneos, grants and personal fees from Abbvie, grants and personal fees from Avanir, grants and personal fees from Biogen, grants and personal fees from Cortexyme, grants and personal fees from Genentech, grants and personal fees from Lilly, grants and personal fees from Merck & Co, grants and personal fees from Roche, grants from Novartis, grants from Arizona Department of Health Services, grants from National Institute on Aging, other from Adamas, outside the submitted work; In addition, Dr. Tariot has a patent U.S. Patent # 11/632,747, “Biomarkers of Neurodegenerative disease.” issued; Dr. Weiner is the PI of The Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) and the Brain Health Registry. I am a Professor at University of California San Francisco; Dr. Touchon has received personnal fees from Regenlife and is JPAD associated Editor and part of the CTAD organizing committee; Dr. Vellas reports grants from Lilly, Merck, Roche, Lundbeck, Biogen, grants from Alzheimer’s Association, European Commission, personal fees from Lilly, Merck, Roche, Biogen, outside the submitted work

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H.-Y.Wang1,2, Z. Pei1, K.-C. Lee1, E. Lopez-Brignoni3, B. Nikolov3, C.A. Crowley4, M.R. Marsman4, R. Barbier4, N. Friedmann4, L.H. Burns4

1. Department of Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences, City University of New York School of Medicine, New York, NY, USA; 2. Department of Biology and Neuroscience, Graduate School of the City University of New York, New York, NY, USA; 3. IMIC, Inc., Palmetto Bay, FL, USA; 4. Cassava Sciences, Inc., Austin, TX, USA

Corresponding Author: Lindsay H. Burns, PhD, Cassava Sciences, Inc., 7801 N. Capital of Texas Hwy, Ste. 260, Austin, TX 78746, Phone: 512-501-2484, Email:    

J Prev Alz Dis 2020;4(7):256-264
Published online February 7, 2020,


BACKGROUND: The most common dementia worldwide, Alzheimer’s disease is often diagnosed via biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid, including reduced levels of Aβ1–42, and increases in total tau and phosphorylated tau-181.  Here we describe results of a Phase 2a study of a promising new drug candidate that significantly reversed all measured biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease, neurodegeneration and neuroinflammation. PTI-125 is an oral small molecule drug candidate that binds and reverses an altered conformation of the scaffolding protein filamin A found in Alzheimer’s disease brain. Altered filamin A links to the α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor to allow Aβ42’s toxic signaling through this receptor to hyperphosphorylate tau. Altered filamin A also links to toll-like receptor 4 to enable Aβ-induced persistent activation of this receptor and inflammatory cytokine release. Restoring the native shape of filamin A prevents or reverses filamin A’s linkages to the α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and toll-like receptor 4, thereby blocking Aβ42’s activation of these receptors. The result is reduced tau hyperphosphorylation and neuroinflammation, with multiple functional improvements demonstrated in transgenic mice and postmortem Alzheimer’s disease brain.
OBJECTIVES: Safety, pharmacokinetics, and cerebrospinal fluid and plasma biomarkers were assessed following treatment with PTI-125 for 28 days. Target engagement and mechanism of action were assessed in patient lymphocytes by measuring 1) the reversal of filamin A’s altered conformation, 2) linkages of filamin A with α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor or toll-like receptor 4, and 3) levels of Aβ42 bound to α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor or CD14, the co-receptor for toll-like receptor 4.
DESIGN: This was a first-in-patient, open-label Phase 2a safety, pharmacokinetics and biomarker study.
SETTING: Five clinical trial sites in the U.S. under an Investigational New Drug application.
PARTICIPANTS: This study included 13 mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease patients, age 50-85, Mini Mental State Exam ≥16 and ≤24 with a cerebrospinal fluid total tau/Aβ42 ratio ≥0.30.
INTERVENTION: PTI-125 oral tablets (100 mg) were administered twice daily for 28 consecutive days.
MEASUREMENTS: Safety was assessed by electrocardiograms, clinical laboratory analyses and adverse event monitoring. Plasma levels of PTI-125 were measured in blood samples taken over 12 h after the first and last doses; cerebrospinal fluid levels were measured after the last dose. Commercial enzyme linked immunosorbent assays assessed levels of biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease in cerebrospinal fluid and plasma before and after treatment with PTI-125. The study measured biomarkers of pathology (pT181 tau, total tau and Aβ42), neurodegeneration (neurofilament light chain and neurogranin) and neuroinflammation (YKL-40, interleukin-6, interleukin-1β and tumor necrosis factor α). Plasma levels of phosphorylated and nitrated tau were assessed by immunoprecipitation of tau followed by immunoblotting of three different phospho-epitopes elevated in AD (pT181-tau, pS202-tau and pT231-tau) and nY29-tau. Changes in conformation of filamin A in lymphocytes were measured by isoelectric focusing point. Filamin A linkages to α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and toll-like receptor 4 were assessed by immunoblot detection of α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and toll-like receptor 4 in anti-filamin A immunoprecipitates from lymphocytes. Aβ42 complexed with α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor or CD14 in lymphocytes was also measured by co-immunoprecipitation. The trial did not measure cognition.
RESULTS: Consistent with the drug’s mechanism of action and preclinical data, PTI-125 reduced cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease pathology, neurodegeneration and neuroinflammation from baseline to Day 28. All patients showed a biomarker response to PTI-125.  Total tau, neurogranin, and neurofilament light chain decreased by 20%, 32% and 22%, respectively. Phospho-tau (pT181) decreased 34%, evidence that PTI-125 suppresses tau hyperphosphorylation induced by Aβ42’s signaling through α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. Cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers of neuroinflammation (YKL-40 and inflammatory cytokines) decreased by 5-14%. Biomarker effects were similar in plasma. Aβ42 increased slightly – a desirable result because low Aβ42 indicates Alzheimer’s disease. This increase is consistent with PTI-125’s 1,000-fold reduction of Aβ42’s femtomolar binding affinity to α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. Biomarker reductions were at least p ≤ 0.001 by paired t test. Target engagement was shown in lymphocytes by a shift in filamin A’s conformation from aberrant to native: 93% was aberrant on Day 1 vs. 40% on Day 28. As a result, filamin A linkages with α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and toll-like receptor 4, and Aβ42 complexes with α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and CD14, were all significantly reduced by PTI-125. PTI-125 was safe and well-tolerated in all patients. Plasma half-life was 4.5 h and approximately 30% drug accumulation was observed on Day 28 vs. Day 1.
CONCLUSIONS:  PTI-125 significantly reduced biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease pathology, neurodegeneration, and neuroinflammation in both cerebrospinal fluid and plasma. All patients responded to treatment. The magnitude and consistency of reductions in established, objective biomarkers imply that PTI-125 treatment counteracted disease processes and reduced the rate of neurodegeneration. Based on encouraging biomarker data and safety profile, approximately 60 patients with mild-to-moderate AD are currently being enrolled in a Phase 2b randomized, placebo-controlled confirmatory study to assess the safety, tolerability and efficacy of PTI-125.

Key words: tau, neurofilament light chain, neurogranin, YKL40, neuroinflammation.



Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common dementia, afflicting fifty million people worldwide (1). PTI-125 is a new small molecule drug candidate for AD with a novel mechanism of action: it binds and restores to normal an altered conformation of the scaffolding protein filamin A (FLNA) (2-4). PTI-125’s target, an altered conformation of FLNA, is a known proteopathy in AD brain (2, 3). FLNA is a large, 280-KDa intracellular scaffolding protein best known for cross-linking actin to regulate cell structure and motility and is highly expressed in brain. FLNA dimerizes by a domain in its membrane-bound C terminal, protruding into the cytoplasm as an inverse V shape to interact with at least 90 different proteins (5), indicating potential involvement in numerous intracellular processes. In the cell membrane, FLNA constitutively associates with certain receptors such as the insulin receptor and the mu opioid receptor, and FLNA regulates insulin receptor signaling and mu opioid receptor – G-protein coupling (6). FLNA does not normally link to α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (α7nAChR) or toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4); however, in AD brain, the altered conformation of FLNA enables FLNA’s association with both (3). Importantly, the aberrant FLNA linkages of altered FLNA to α7nAChR and TLR4 promote toxic signaling of soluble Aβ42 via each receptor, contributing to AD pathology (3, 4).
The extremely tight binding (high femtomolar affinity) of Aβ42 to α7nAChR, first demonstrated two decades ago (7), is reinforced by altered FLNA’s linkage to this receptor (3). Aβ42 signals via α7nAChR to hyperphosphorylate tau protein by activating kinases ERK and JNK1 (8). Tau hyperphosphorylation is a hallmark of AD pathology and disrupts tau’s function of stabilizing microtubules, promoting degeneration. Hyperphosphorylated tau also initiates neurofibrillary lesions and tau protofibril formation, leading to eventual fibrillar tau-rich tangles. This toxic signaling pathway of Aβ42 via α7nAChR has been confirmed by multiple laboratories under conditions that maintain Aβ42 as soluble monomers or small oligomers (9-11).
Aβ42 activates TLR4 by binding the TLR4 co-receptor CD14 (12). Aβ42 binding to CD14 promotes a sustained activation of TLR4 and persistent release of inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6, IL-1β and TNFα (13). Like Aβ42 signaling through α7nAChR, this Aβ42-induced TLR4 activation requires the linkage of altered FLNA to TLR4 (4). The chronic activation of TLR4 by amyloid in AD leads to neuroinflammation and exacerbates neurodegeneration.
By preferentially binding the altered conformation of FLNA and restoring its native shape, PTI-125 releases FLNA from α7nAChR and TLR4, reducing Aβ42-driven tau hyperphosphorylation and neuroinflammation, thereby attenuating neurodegeneration (2). In triple transgenic AD mice, PTI-125 restored α7nAChR, NMDAR and insulin receptor signaling, improved synaptic plasticity, reduced amyloid deposits and neurofibrillary lesions, robustly attenuated inflammatory cytokine levels, and improved cognition (3). In vitro PTI-125 incubation of postmortem human AD brain (or age-matched control brain treated with exogenous Aβ42) also reduced FLNA linked to α7nAChR or TLR4, decreased Aβ42 – α7nAChR complex levels, decreased Aβ42-induced tau hyperphosphorylation, and again improved synaptic plasticity and receptor function. IC50s for these effects were nanomolar, and significant effects were seen at concentrations as low as 1 picomolar (3, 4).
This Phase 2a clinical trial follows favorable safety and tolerability data from a Phase 1 study of 50, 100, or 200 mg of PTI-125 in healthy volunteers. In this first-in-patient, Phase 2a clinical trial, thirteen mild-to-moderate AD patients received 100 mg oral PTI-125 b.i.d. for 28 days. Patients were age 50-85, MMSE ≥ 16 and ≤ 24, with a CSF T-tau/Aβ42 ratio ≥ 0.30. The 100 mg dose was selected because it is equivalent by body surface area conversion (the accepted method of determining equivalent doses between species) to effective daily doses of PTI-125 in AD mouse models (3, 4). The T-tau/Aβ42 ratio was selected as a low cutoff to confirm AD diagnosis based on biomarker determinations from samples obtained from the Swedish bioFINDER and ADNI (Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative) cohorts (14), recognizing that we used commercial enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs) and that study used ElectroChemiLuminescence Immunoassays (ECLIAs).  Although these assays are not directly comparable, values from each are reported in pg/mL. Safety was monitored by electrocardiograms, clinical labs, adverse event monitoring and physical examinations. Change from baseline was measured for CSF and plasma biomarkers of AD pathology (T-tau, P-tau and Aβ42), neurodegeneration (neurofilament light (NfL) chain and neurogranin) and neuroinflammation (YKL-40 and inflammatory cytokines IL-6, IL-1β and TNFα). Pre-dose and Day 28 samples were tested in triplicate in a single ELISA plate according to manufacturers’ instructions.
A recent meta-analysis showed that in CSF of AD patients vs. age-matched controls, T-tau and P-tau are increased respectively by 2.5- and 1.9-fold and Aβ42 is reduced by half (15). NfL, expressed predominantly in large caliber axons and indicating axonal damage, is increased by 2.3-fold in CSF of AD patients relative to controls (15). NfL may track disease progression and is emerging as a plasma AD biomarker (16). Neurogranin, a post-synaptic protein in dendritic spines, is elevated in AD and represents synaptic/dendritic destruction (17-19). The secreted glycoprotein YKL-40, an inflammation mediator, is thought to accompany microglial activation and extracellular tissue remodeling and is also elevated in AD (18, 20, 21).




Of 19 patients screened, 13 enrolled. All 13 were mild-to-moderate AD patients, age 50-85, MMSE ≥ 16 and ≤ 24, with a CSF T-tau/Aβ42 ratio ≥ 0.30. Although the protocol stated 12 patients would be enrolled, 13 were enrolled due to multiple patients in screening near the end of the study.

Lymphocyte and plasma preparation

To prepare lymphocytes, 8 ml venous blood collected in EDTA-containing tubes was layered onto 8 ml Histopaque-1077 at 25°C and centrifuged (400 g, 30 min, 25°C) to yield plasma (top layer) and lymphocytes (opaque interface). Plasma fractions were aliquoted into Eppendorf centrifuge tubes and stored at -80°C until assay. The obtained lymphocytes were washed twice by mixing with 10 ml phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) followed by centrifugation at 250 g for 10 min. The final lymphocyte pellet was resuspended in 600 µl cell freezing medium (DMEM, 5% DMSO, 10% fetal bovine serum), aliquoted and held at -80°C until assay.

Treatment of CSF and plasma for biomarkers

CSF and plasma were thawed on ice and immediately treated with 20X protease inhibitor cocktail (Complete mini EDTA-free protease inhibitors, Roche, 04693159001) and protein phosphatase inhibitor cocktail (Phosphostop phosphatase inhibitors, Roche, 04906837001).

Determination of CSF and plasma biomarkers

Levels of biomarkers in protease and protein phosphatase inhibitor treated CSF and plasma were measured by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) in triplicate against standards, according to manufacturer’s instruction.  The ELISA kits (Table 1) from Invitrogen or Lifespan were solid phase sandwich ELISAs (except neurogranin, a solid phase indirect ELISA) that detect endogenous levels of biomarkers with a specific detecting antibody followed by an anti-species IgG, horseradish peroxidase (HRP)-linked antibody to recognize the bound detection antibody. HRP substrate tetramethylbenzidine was added to develop color. Absorbance for the developed color is proportional to the quantity of protein. Absorbances were analyzed against standards by linear regression using GraphPad Prism.

Table 1. ELISA kits used to measure CSF and plasma biomarkers

Table 1. ELISA kits used to measure CSF and plasma biomarkers


Measurement of FLNA – α7nAChR/TLR4 linkages and Aβ42 –α7nAChR/CD14 complexes in lymphocytes and ex vivo Aβ42 treatment

Levels of FLNA – α7nAChR/TLR4 and Aβ42 – α7nAChR/CD14 interactions were assessed in patient lymphocytes.  Lymphocytes (200 μg) from patients at the indicated dosing days were incubated at 37°C with oxygenated protease inhibitors containing Kreb’s Ringer (K-R) or 0.1 μM Aβ42 for 30 min (250 μl total incubation volume). The assay mixtures were aerated with 95%O2/5%CO2 for 1 min every 10 min. Reactions were terminated by adding ice-cold Ca2+-free K-R containing protease and protein phosphatase inhibitors (Roche) and centrifuging. The obtained lymphocytes were homogenized in 250 μl ice-cold immunoprecipitation buffer (25 mM HEPES, pH 7.5, 200 mM NaCl, 1 mM EDTA, 0.2% 2-mercaptoethanol with protease and protein phosphatase inhibitors) by sonication for 10 s on ice, and solubilized by nonionic detergents (0.5% NP-40/0.2% Na cholate/0.5% digitonin) for 60 min (4°C) with end-to-end rotation. The obtained lysate was centrifuged at 20,000 g for 30 min (4°C) and the resultant supernatant (0.25 ml) was diluted 4x with 0.75 ml immunoprecipitation buffer. Aβ42 – α7nAChR complexes were immunoprecipitated with immobilized anti-FLNA (SC-58764 + SC-17749, Santa Cruz) or anti-Aβ42 (AB5078P, Millipore Sigma) + anti-actin (SC-8432+ SC-376421) antibodies onto protein A/G-conjugated agarose beads (#20421, Thermo). Resultant immunocomplexes were pelleted by centrifugation (4°C), washed 3x with ice-cold PBS, pH 7.2, containing 0.1% NP-40, and centrifuged. Immunocomplexes were solubilized by boiling 5 min in 100 μl SDS-PAGE sample preparation buffer (62.5 mM Tris-HCl, pH 6.8; 10% glycerol, 2% SDS; 5% 2mercaptoethanol, 0.1% bromophenol blue) and centrifuged to remove antibody-protein A/G agarose beads. Levels of α7nAChRs (SC-58607) and β-actin (SC-47778) were determined by immunoblotting, with FLNA and β-actin levels serving as the indicators of immunoprecipitation efficiency and gel loading (3, 4, 22). Blots were then stripped and re-probed with specific antibodies against TLR4 (SC-302972) and CD14 (SC-1182) to assess levels of FLNA – TLR4 and Aβ42 – CD14 associations, respectively. Blots of anti-Aβ42 immunoprecipitates size-fractionated on 20% SDS-PAGE were used to survey the molecular mass of Aβ42 using anti-Aβ42 (AB5078P, Millipore Sigma).

Measurement of phosphorylated and nitrated tau in plasma

Phosphorylated and nitrated tau in plasma were assessed using an established method (3, 8, 23). Total tau proteins were immunoprecipitated by 1 µg immobilized anti-tau (SC-65865 and SC-166060), which does not discriminate between phosphorylation states. Levels of phosphorylated tau (pS202tau, pT231tau and pT181tau), nitrated tau (nY29tau) and total tau precipitated (loading control) were assessed by immunoblotting with antibodies specific to each phosphoepitope (pS202tau: AT8 [MN1020], pT231tau: AT180 [MN1040] and pT181tau: AT270 [MN1050], all from Thermo Invitrogen), anti-nY29tau (SC-66177), and anti-tau (SC-32274).

Isoelectric point assessment

Lymphocyte FLNA was isolated using a procedure established for brain tissues (3) with slight modification. Lymphocytes (200 µg) were sonicated for 10 s on ice in 200 µl modified hypotonic solution (50 mM Tris HCl, pH 8.0, 11.8 mM NaCl, 0.48 mM KCl, 0.13 mM CaCl2, 0.13 mM Mg2SO4, 2.5 mM NaHCO3) with a cocktail of protease and protein phosphatase inhibitors. The treated lymphocytes were solubilized using 0.5% digitonin/0.2% sodium cholate/0.5% NP-40 (4°C) with end-over-end rotation for 1 h. Following centrifugation to remove insoluble debris, the lysate was treated with 1% sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) for 1 min to dissociate FLNA-associated proteins, diluted 10x with immunoprecipitation buffer, and immunopurified with immobilized anti-FLNA (SC-58764 + SC-17749). Resultant FLNA was eluted using 200 µl antigen-elution buffer (#21004, Thermo), neutralized immediately with 100 mM Tris HCl (pH 9.0), diluted to 500 µl with 50 mM Tris HCl, pH 7.5, and passed through a 100-kD cut-off filter to remove low-molecular weight FLNA fragments. Once purified, FLNA was suspended in 100 µl isoelectric focusing sample buffer. Samples (50 µl) were loaded onto pH 3-10 isoelectric focusing gels and proteins fractionated (100 V for 1 h, 200 V for 1 h, and 500 V for 30 min). Separated proteins were then electrophoretically transferred to nitrocellulose membranes. FLNA was identified by immunoblotting with anti-FLNA (SC-57864) antibodies.

Pharmacokinetic methods

Blood samples (4 mL) were drawn into a Vacutainer® tube containing K2EDTA, placed on ice, and centrifuged 1000 xg for 15 min. Plasma was split into two aliquots, transferred to polypropylene tubes and stored at -20°C or below until analysis.
Plasma PK parameters for PTI-125 were calculated using non-compartmental methods in WinNonlin. The peak drug concentration (Cmax), the time to peak drug concentration (Tmax), Tlast and Clast, the time to the last quantifiable drug concentration, were obtained directly from the data without interpolation. The following parameters were calculated: the elimination rate constant (λz), the terminal elimination half-life (T1/2), the AUC from time zero to the time of the last quantifiable concentration (AUClast), the AUC from time zero extrapolated to infinity (AUCinf), and the percentage of AUCinf based on extrapolation (AUCextrap(%)), Cl/F, the apparent oral clearance, and Vz/F, apparent volume of distribution. Accumulation was estimated by the ratios of the AUC on the last day of dosing to the corresponding AUC the first day of dosing.
Below limit of quantitation (BLQ) concentrations were treated as zero from time-zero up to the time at which the first quantifiable concentration was observed; embedded and/or terminal BLQ concentrations were treated as “missing.” Full precision concentration data and actual sample times were used for all pharmacokinetic and statistical analyses.

Statistics and blinding

All CSF and plasma ELISA biomarker data were analyzed by two-sided paired t test by an independent statistician. Plasma tau phosphorylation and lymphocyte data including FLNA conformation were analyzed by one-way ANOVA with post-hoc two-sided t test (unpaired) on all 13 patients, with one missing (baseline) value. All biomarker assessments were performed blind to treatment day; samples were coded prior to testing.




This first-in-patient Phase 2a trial enrolled 13 patients: 9 females, 4 males; 3 black, 10 white; 6 Hispanic, 7 non-Hispanic. Both CSF and plasma/lymphocyte data were n=12 (or n=13 with one missing value) because one patient declined the second CSF draw, and the baseline plasma/lymphocyte sample was missing for another patient. Additionally, one patient stopped dosing on Day 21, was tested positive for cocaine on that day, did not resume dosing, but returned for the CSF draw and whole blood sample on Day 28. This patient’s CSF and plasma biomarker data are included.

Safety and pharmacokinetics

In this Phase 2a trial, PTI-125 was safe and well tolerated with no drug-related adverse events. Half-life was 4.5 h, and approximately 30% accumulation was observed on Day 28 compared to Day 1 exposure. PK parameters are shown in Table 2.  The CSF to plasma ratio of the PTI-125 analyte used plasma levels from the nearest PK time point to the time of CSF draw on Day 28, or the average of two if in the middle. Ratios ranged from 0.09 to 1.2, with CSF draw times ranging from 1.15 to 7.75 h post-dose, with higher ratios trending to later time points.

Table 2. Mean PK parameters of PTI-125 100 mg b.i.d. in AD patients (± SD)

Table 2. Mean PK parameters of PTI-125 100 mg b.i.d. in AD patients (± SD)


CSF and plasma biomarkers

Consistent with PTI-125’s mechanism of action and preclinical data, PTI-125 treatment reduced CSF biomarkers of neurodegeneration and AD pathology from baseline to Day 28 (Fig. 1). T-tau decreased 20%, neurogranin decreased 32%, and NfL decreased 22%. P-tau (pT181) decreased 34%, evidence that PTI-125 suppresses tau hyperphosphorylation induced by Aβ42’s signaling through α7nAChR. CSF biomarkers of neuroinflammation were also reduced: YKL-40, IL-6, IL-1β and TNFα decreased by 9%, 14%, 11% and 5%, respectively. Plasma NfL, neurogranin, T-tau and YKL-40 levels were similarly reduced (Fig. 1). All reductions were of slightly lower magnitude in plasma except for neurogranin, which was reduced 40.7% in plasma. In contrast to the consistent and highly significant reductions of all other biomarkers, Aβ42 increased slightly in both CSF and plasma – a desirable result because low Aβ42 in CSF and plasma indicates AD. This increase, significant only in plasma due to variability in CSF, is consistent with PTI-125’s mechanism: Aβ42 bound to α7nAChR is released due to a profound reduction in Aβ42’s affinity for α7nAChR when PTI-125 binds altered FLNA and restores its native shape (2-4).

Figure 1. PTI-125 treatment reduces CSF and plasma biomarkers

Figure 1. PTI-125 treatment reduces CSF and plasma biomarkers

All CSF biomarkers elevated in AD were significantly reduced in CSF after PTI-125 treatment. T-tau, NfL, neurogranin (Nrgrn) and YKL-40 were also significantly reduced in plasma. The slight increase in Aβ42 was significant in plasma but not in CSF due to variability. Inflammatory cytokines and P-tau in plasma were not assessed. *p < 0.0001, +p < 0.001, # p < 0.01 in paired t test comparing Day 28 to pre-dose baseline. N=12. Error bars are SEM.


Spaghetti plots of individual CSF biomarker values (pg/mL) show that each patient responded to PTI-125 treatment on virtually all biomarkers (Fig. 2). Interestingly, the two patients with high Aβ42 levels showed a decrease in this biomarker post-treatment. Familial AD mutations were not assessed but may have contributed. Although cytokines can be difficult to measure, the lower limits of quantitation (2x background) were 3.9 pg/mL for IL-6 (R2 value 0.8864) and 7.8 pg/mL for both IL-1β and TNFα (R2 values 0.9374 and 0.8767, respectively).

Figure 2. Individual patient changes in CSF biomarkers

Figure 2. Individual patient changes in CSF biomarkers

Each spaghetti plot shows reductions from baseline for each patient in one of nine biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease, neurodegeneration or neuroinflammation. Levels of Aβ42, usually low in AD patients, increased after treatment with PTI-125, except for two patients with high baseline Aβ42.  Data are plotted as pg/mL.

Because levels of phosphorylated tau defined by individual phospho-epitopes are low in CSF and even lower in plasma (as reflected in total tau levels), plasma levels of phosphorylated tau were assessed by immunoprecipitation of tau with anti-tau followed by immunoblotting of three different phospho-epitopes known to be elevated in AD. Tau phosphorylation at these sites (pT181-tau, pS202-tau and pT231-tau) was significantly reduced in plasma by 12.5%, 14.0% and 16.3%, respectively, following PTI-125 treatment (Fig. 3), corroborating pT181-tau results in CSF. Because tau is immunoprecipitated with a tau-specific antibody, tau levels serve as the control for phospho-tau and nitrated tau levels. The ratios for each P-tau epitope and nY to total tau were adjusted by the average reduction in total tau reduction (0.955 for Day 14 and 0.887 for Day 28; loading could not be adjusted in the experiment due to blinding). The higher than expected molecular weight for tau may be due to additional phosphorylation in blood; the anti-tau antibody used to detect tau is commonly used. The reduction in phosphorylated tau, together with 20.4% lower nitrated tau (nY29-tau; Fig. 3), suggests that PTI-125 can reduce tau hyperphosphorylation and oxidative stress to stabilize mitochondria and attenuate neurofibrillary lesions and neurodegeneration.

Figure 3. PTI-125 treatment reduces phosphorylated and nitrated tau in plasma

Figure 3. PTI-125 treatment reduces phosphorylated and nitrated tau in plasma

a, b, Reductions in tau phosphorylation and tau nitration found in plasma following PTI-125 treatment.  Reductions were evident by 14 days and stronger by 28 days of dosing, demonstrated by anti-tau antibody immunoprecipitation and immunoblotting with antibodies specific for each phosphorylation or nitration site. Blots (a) were evaluated by densitometric quantitation (b). *p < 0.001 vs. dosing day 0, +p < 0.01 vs. dosing day 14. N=13 with one missing value. Error bars are SEM


Mechanism and target engagement in patient lymphocytes

Patient lymphocytes, which express FLNA (24), α7nAChR and TLR4, were used to demonstrate target engagement and mechanism of action of PTI-125. Confirming the altered and acidic FLNA in AD brain (3), FLNA in patients’ lymphocytes had an isoelectric focusing point (pI) of 5.3 prior to treatment. PTI-125 treatment reverted FLNA’s pI from almost exclusively 5.3 on Day 0 to mostly 5.9 on Day 28 (Fig. 4a,b), indicating the reversal of pathological to physiological, native conformation (3).
The benefit of this shift in FLNA conformation is shown by reduced FLNA linkages to α7nAChR and TLR4 in patient lymphocytes (by 45.4% for each, Fig. 4c,d) assessed by immunoblot detection of α7nAChR and TLR4 in anti-FLNA immunoprecipitates, as previously described for assessments in AD mouse models and AD postmortem human brain (3, 4).  Finally, PTI-125 treatment benefit is also corroborated by reduced binding of Aβ42 to both α7nAChR and CD14, the co-receptor for TLR4, by 54.6% and 40.1%, respectively, demonstrated by immunoprecipitation with a specific anti-Aβ42 antibody and subsequent immunoblot detection of α7nAChR or CD14 in the immunoprecipitate  (Fig. 5a, b). Immunoblot detection of Aβ42 itself in the immunoprecipitate showed a <10 KDa species that increases following treatment, indicating small oligomers or monomers, as well as a band of 57 KDa, representing Aβ42 monomers tightly bound to α7nAChR or CD14 (7, 25), which decreased with treatment (Fig. 5c, d). The reduction in Aβ42 bound to α7nAChR is consistent with PTI-125’s 1000-10,000-fold reduction in binding affinity of Aβ42 to α7nAChR (4).

Figure 4. PTI-125 restores FLNA’s native shape and reduces FLNA linkages to α7nAChR and TLR4

Figure 4. PTI-125 restores FLNA’s native shape and reduces FLNA linkages to α7nAChR and TLR4

a, b Restoration of FLNA’s native shape. Isoelectric focusing gel (a) and its quantitation (b) show that 93% of FLNA isolated from lymphocytes prior to treatment is in the altered conformation (pI 5.3), with just 7% in the native shape (pI 5.9).  PTI-125 treatment for 28 days shifts this distribution to 40% in the altered and 60% in the native conformation. *p < 0.0001 comparing 5.9 to 5.3, #p < 0.0001 vs. dosing day 0, +p < 0.0001 vs. dosing day 14. c,d, Reductions in FLNA linkages to TLR4 and α7nAChR found in lymphocytes. Reductions are illustrated by TLR4 or α7nAChR levels detected using immunoblotting with specific antibodies in solubilized anti-FLNA antibody immunoprecipitates of lymphocytes. Additionally, exogenous Aβ42 added in vitro to lymphocytes reversed these reductions in FLNA associations, returning levels to pre-treatment baseline. Blots (c) were assessed by densitometric quantitation (d). *p < 0.001 vs. dosing day 0, +p < 0.01 and ++p < 0.05 vs. dosing day 14. N=13 with one missing value. Error bars are SEM.

The fact that reduced FLNA linkages and Aβ42 binding to α7nAChR/CD14 can be reversed by adding exogenous Aβ42 (0.1 µM) illustrates the dynamic nature of this Aβ42-mediated pathogenesis in AD. Because CSF biomarkers were notably reduced, these findings in lymphocytes of PTI-125-treated patients can be inferred also to occur in brain. In support, reductions in FLNA linkages to α7nAChR and TLR4 in lymphocytes (unpublished data) of transgenic AD mice treated with PTI-125 tracked similar reductions we reported in brains of these mice (3).

Figure 5. PTI-125 treatment reduces levels of Aβ42 bound to α7nAChR and CD14

Figure 5. PTI-125 treatment reduces levels of Aβ42 bound to α7nAChR and CD14

a, b, Reductions in levels of complexes of Aβ42 with α7nAChR and CD14 found in lymphocytes. Reductions are illustrated by α7nAChR and CD14 levels detected using immunoblotting with specific antibodies in anti-Aβ42 antibody immunoprecipitates of lymphocytes. c, d, The 57-KDa band representing Aβ42 tightly bound to CD14 or α7nAChR is progressively reduced over dosing days. Aβ42 in lymphocytes (endogenous or exogenously added) is predominantly monomeric, illustrated by size < 10 KDa (c). As with FLNA linkages, exogenous Aβ42 added in vitro to lymphocytes reversed these reductions in Aβ42 – α7nAChR/CD14 complexes, returning levels to pre-treatment baseline. Actin simultaneously immunoprecipitated by anti-actin antibodies was used as a loading control for both blots. Blots (a, c) were assessed by densitometric quantitation (b, d). *p < 0.001 vs. dosing day 0, +p < 0.01 and ++p < 0.05 vs. dosing day 14. N=13 with one missing value. Error bars are SEM


Discussion/Future development plans

In a first-in-patient clinical trial of PTI-125, CSF and plasma biomarkers of AD pathology, neurodegeneration and neuroinflammation were markedly improved following 28-day oral treatment with PTI-125. All patients showed a biomarker response to PTI-125.  The drug was well tolerated, with no observable drug-related adverse events. PTI-125’s effects in patients are consistent with its mechanism of action and published preclinical data. Target engagement and mechanism of action of PTI-125 were demonstrated in patient lymphocytes by reduced associations of FLNA with α7nAChR and TLR4, reduced binding of Aβ42 to α7nAChR or CD14 and a shift back to FLNA’s native shape, visible by isoelectric focusing point. The magnitude and consistency of reductions in several established, objective biomarkers following treatment with PTI-125 at 100 mg twice daily for 28 days imply a slower rate of neurodegeneration or a suppression of disease processes in AD.
Cognition and function were not assessed in this small study. However, elevated CSF biomarkers of P-tau and total tau/Aβ42 ratio have previously been correlated with worse performance on a wide range of memory and sustained attention assessments (26) and define the disease state if not also progression. We therefore hypothesize that decreasing these markers will favorably impact patient cognition and function or their rates of decline. Additionally, other research has shown that 11-13% decreases in CSF neurogranin and P-tau and a slower increase in CSF NfL compared to placebo over 18 months is associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline in prodromal AD patients (27).
Based on these encouraging safety and biomarker data, patients are currently being enrolled in a Phase 2b study to assess the safety, tolerability and effects of PTI-125 in patients with mild-to-moderate AD. This blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trial will enroll approximately 60 patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease.  In the Phase 2b study, patients are administered PTI-125 100 mg, 50 mg or matching placebo, twice daily, for 28 continuous days. The primary endpoint is improvement in biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease from baseline to Day 28. Although Phase 2b is too small (N=60) to generate statistically meaningful data in cognition, a cognition scale (beyond MMSE) is being utilized to guide statistical considerations for future, large-scale clinical investigations with PTI-125. Unambiguous improvements in cognition and function is a key efficacy criterion for FDA approval of a new drug in AD (28), a hurdle which, to date, no drug candidate for AD has met with clear and compelling clinical data. Ultimately, to demonstrate disease modification in AD, future investigations must correlate improvements in biomarkers by PTI-125 with beneficial effects on cognition and function.


Funding:  This trial was funded by grant award AG060878 from the National Institute on Aging at NIH.

Acknowledgements: We sincerely thank NIA for their support of our work in Alzheimer’s disease. We thank the clinical investigators and patients who have participated in the clinical program for PTI-125. We thank consultants Chuck Davis for statistics on ELISA biomarkers and Jeff Stark for PK analyses.

Conflict of interest: LHB, CAC, RB and NF are employees of Cassava Sciences, Inc. HYW and MRM are science advisors to Cassava Sciences, Inc. ELB and BN are employees of IMIC, Inc., an independent clinical site that participated in this study.

Role of the sponsor: Cassava Sciences, Inc. provided all drug supply and material support for this clinical research, designed the study in consultation with its advisors and monitored the conduct of the study and data collection. Biomarker assays were conducted blind to treatment day by HWY and his lab at CUNY Medical school. LHB assisted in the interpretation of the data and wrote the manuscript together with RB and HWY.

Ethical standards: All participants and their caregivers provided written informed consent. The protocol, informed consent forms and clinical sites were all approved by Advarra IRB.



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S. Gauthier1, J. Alam2, H. Fillit3, T. Iwatsubo4, H. Liu-Seifert5, M. Sabbagh6, S. Salloway7, C. Sampaio8, J.R. Sims5, B. Sperling9, R. Sperling10, K.A. Welsh-Bohmer11, J. Touchon12, B. Vellas13, P. Aisen14 and the EU/US/CTAD Task Force*


* EU/US/CTAD TASK FORCE: Bjorn Aaris Gronning (Valby); Paul Aisen (San Diego); John Alam (Cambridge); Sandrine Andrieu (Toulouse), Randall Bateman (St. Louis); Monika Baudler (Basel);  Joanne Bell (Wilmington); Kaj Blennow (Mölndal); Claudine Brisard (Blue Bell); Samantha Budd-Haeberlein (USA); Szofia Bullain (Basel) ; Marc Cantillon (Princeton) ; Maria Carrillo (Chicago);  Gemma Clark (Princeton); Jeffrey Cummings (Las Vegas); Daniel Di Giusto (Basel); Rachelle Doody (Basel); Sanjay Dubé (Aliso Viejo); Michael Egan (North Wales); Howard Fillit (New York); Adam Fleisher (Philadelphia); Mark Forman (North Wales); Cecilia Gabriel-Gracia (Suresnes); Serge Gauthier (Verdun); Jeffrey Harris (South San Francisco); Suzanne Hendrix (Salt Lake City); Dave Henley (Titusville); David Hewitt (Blue Bell); Mads Hvenekilde (Basel); Takeshi Iwatsubo (Tokyo); Keith Johnson (Boston); Michael Keeley (South San Francisco); Gene Kinney (South San Francisco); Ricky Kurzman (Woodcliffe Lake); Valérie Legrand (Nanterre); Stefan Lind (Valby); Hong Liu-Seifert (Indianapolis); Simon Lovestone (Oxford); Johan Luthman (Woodcliffe); Annette Merdes (Munich); David Michelson (Cambridge); Mark Mintun (Philadelphia); José Luis Molinuevo (Barcelona); Susanne Ostrowitzki (South San Francisco); Anton Porsteinsson (Rochester);  Martin Rabe (Woodcliffe Lake); Rema Raman (San Diego); Elena Ratti (Cambridge);  Larisa Reyderman (Woodcliffe Lake); Gary Romano (Titusville); Ivana Rubino (Cambridge); Marwan Noel Sabbagh (Las Vegas);  Stephen Salloway (Providence); Cristina Sampaio (Princeton); Rachel Schindler (USA); Peter Schüler (Langen); Dennis Selkoe (Boston); Eric Siemers (New York);  John Sims (Indianapolis); Heather Snyder (Chicago); Georgina Spence (Galashiels); Bjorn Sperling (Valby); Reisa Sperling (Boston); Andrew Stephens (Berlin); Joyce Suhy (Newark); Gilles Tamagnan (New Haven); Edmond Teng (South San Francisco); Gary Tong (Valby); Jan Torleif Pedersen (Valby); Jacques Touchon (Montpellier); Bruno Vellas (Toulouse ); Vissia Viglietta (Cambridge) ; Christian Von Hehn (Cambridge); Philipp Von Rosenstiel (Cambridge) ; Michael Weiner (San Francisco); Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer (Durham);  Iris Wiesel (Basel); Haichen Yang (North Wales);  Wagner Zago (South San Francisco); Beyhan Zaim (Woodcliffe Lake); Henrik Zetterberg (Mölndal)  

1. McGill Center for Studies in Aging, Verdun QC, Canada;  2. EIP Pharma Inc., Cambridge MA, USA; 3. The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, New York NY, USA; 4. University of Tokyo, Japan; 5. Eli Lilly and Company, Indianapolis IN, USA; 6L Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas NV, USA; 7. The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence RI, USA; 8. CHDI Foundation, Princeton NJ, USA; 9. Lundbeck, Valby 2500 Denmark; 10. Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston MA, USA; 11. Duke University, Durham NC, USA; 12. University Hospital of Montpellier, 34025 Montpellier Cedex 5, and INSERM 1061, France; 13. Gerontopole, INSERM U1027, Alzheimer’s Disease Research and Clinical Center, Toulouse University Hospital, Toulouse, France; 14. Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute (ATRI), Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, San Diego CA, USA

Corresponding Author: Serge Gauthier, McGill Center for Studies in Aging, Verdun QC, Canada,

J Prev Alz Dis
Published online April 18, 2019,



Combination therapy is expected to play an important role for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In October 2018, the European Union-North American Clinical Trials in Alzheimer’s Disease Task Force (EU/US CTAD Task Force) met to discuss scientific, regulatory, and logistical challenges to the development of combination therapy for AD and current efforts to address these challenges. Task Force members unanimously agreed that successful treatment of AD will likely require combination therapy approaches that target multiple mechanisms and pathways. They further agreed on the need for global collaboration and sharing of data and resources to accelerate development of such approaches.

Key words: Alzheimer’s disease, amyloid, tau, therapeutics, trial design.



Combination therapy has resulted in improved outcomes for many of the world’s most significant and complex diseases, including cancer, AIDS, and cardiovascular disease, and the prospect of combination therapy has also gained traction in the Alzheimer’s disease (AD) field (1-3). The reasons for pursuing combination therapy for AD go beyond the disappointing track record in developing effective treatments for this disease that is likely to affect more than 150 million people worldwide by 2050 (4-6). As with many other complex diseases, AD arises from a series of pathological changes and the involvement of many pathogenic pathways that begin well before symptoms appear (7), suggesting that effective treatment will require targeting multiple pathways, either simultaneously or sequentially. However, the complexity of AD pathophysiology also introduces substantial hurdles to the development of combinatorial approaches. To better understand current efforts to develop such approaches and the steps that need to be taken to expedite this process, the European Union-North American Clinical Trials in Alzheimer’s Disease Task Force (EU/US CTAD Task Force) discussed combination therapy for AD at its 2018 meeting. The Task Force brings together investigators from industry, academia, and regulatory agencies to build consensus and promote collaboration and information sharing on issues important for the development of effective Alzheimer’s treatments. Many Task Force members expect combination therapy to play an important role in treating AD and call for global collaboration to develop combination therapies (8, 9), but agree that the path forward has yet to be clearly defined.


Best candidates for combination therapy

Combination therapy for AD could involve interrupting a single important pathogenic pathway (such as amyloid or tau) at multiple points or targeting two or more pathways together (such as amyloid plus tau). Despite the many disappointing clinical trials of disease-modifying therapies targeting amyloid, it remains a promising target for disease modification, in particular for prevention studies. The rationale for targeting amyloid is strong (10). Most known genetic mutations related to AD are involved in amyloid production or processing. This includes mutations in the Presenilin 1 and 2 and amyloid precursor protein (APP) genes, and Down syndrome, the most common cause of early-onset AD, which is caused by a trisomy of chromosome 21 where the APP gene resides. In addition, a mutation in the APP gene known as the Icelandic mutation (A673T) has been shown to be protective against AD and cognitive decline (11).
Moreover, there is abundant evidence that Aβ oligomers and amyloid plaques are toxic (12, 13), and encouraging although preliminary evidence that removing plaques may be associated with improved cognition and clinical outcomes.
The APP molecule undergoes sequential cleavage via β- and γ-secretases to produce amyloidogenic fragments. Amyloid peptides take on monomeric, oligomeric, and fibrillar forms that may cause toxicity through a variety of mechanisms including oxidative stress, excitotoxicity, synaptic failure, and other mechanisms associated with neuronal death (14). This complex pathway from APP to toxicity thus creates multiple potential therapeutic targets (Figure 1). Antibodies directed at different amyloid fragments have been developed as potential treatments against AD with varying degrees of success at removing amyloid and halting the disease process; secretase inhibitors have also been effective at reducing amyloid load but have been associated with cognitive worsening and other adverse events (15, 16).

Figure 1. Opportunities for amyloid-based combination therapies based on therapeutics currently in clinical development

Figure 1. Opportunities for amyloid-based combination therapies based on therapeutics currently in clinical development


A workgroup of the National Institutes on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association (NIA-AA) recently published a research framework that defines and stages the disease according to the presence of Amyloid (A), Tau (T) and neurodegeneration (N) biomarkers (17).  Yet while the AD disease-modifying drug development pipeline continues to reflect the predominance of the amyloid pathway, there has recently been an increase in the number of drug trials testing non-amyloid mechanisms (18, 19). In agreement with the NIA-AA Research Framework, the Task Force recognized the need to add biomarkers of other pathologies commonly seen in the brains of people with AD, such as vascular pathology (V), inflammation (I), and Lewy bodies (L).


Possible combination trial designs that target amyloid

Preclinical AD is marked primarily by amyloid accumulation, with cognitive performance and biomarkers of neurodegeneration, tau, and cerebral metabolism increasing markedly only in the clinical stages of disease (20). This suggests that a vigorous attack on amyloid using multiple agents simultaneously to target different steps in the amyloid pathway may slow, stop, or reverse the progression of AD.
However, an even more promising approach may be attacking the amyloid pathway sequentially at different times and disease stages. Sequential therapy offers efficiency advantages by enabling the assessment of individual adverse events and benefits more readily. One potential sequential therapy design using an induction/maintenance approach would be to start treating with an inhibitor of Aβ production, such as a beta-secretase inhibitor (BACEi), before there is any detectable amyloid; and then introducing amyloid-reducing antibodies when amyloid becomes elevated but before neuronal damage has begun. This approach could reduce the number of anti-amyloid antibody infusions required, thus saving costs and reducing exposure. However, designing a trial using this strategy could become very complicated.
An alternative would be to start with an anti-amyloid antibody first to induce an amyloid-free state for 3 months to 1 year (long enough to see cognitive benefit in early stage), and then push backwards and treat with BACEi as maintenance therapy. Although BACEi have shown significant adverse events in several trials, a lower dose (e.g. inhibiting only ≤30% of BACE) may improve the risk/benefit calculation. Other secretase modulators, antibodies that target diffusible amyloid, or amyloid active vaccine may also be used for maintenance.
A combination study including both anti-tau and anti-amyloid drugs also has been suggested although many questions remain about the efficacy of anti-tau agents, the best tau epitopes to target, the optimal stage of disease to treat, how to establish target engagement, and how to design anti-tau trials (31).  Another combination clinical trial that combines two non-amyloid approaches is also underway at Amylyx Pharmaceuticals in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation and the Alzheimer’s Association. This Phase 2 trial of AMX0035 combines  sodium phenylbutyrate, which is approved for the treatment of urea cycle disorders, and tauroursodeoxycholic acid (TUDCA), a bile acid that supports mitochondrial energetics (19). The combination is expected to protect neurons from inflammation and oxidative stress.


Best target populations and study designs

For clinical trials of combination therapies such as those described above, the stage of disease and study design for proof-of-concept and Phase 3 studies will be determined by a medication’s mode of action on disease pathophysiology. For example, trials designed to treat patients in early disease stages, i.e., symptomatic with a CDR 0.5 or 1, should maximize the likelihood of detecting disease progression during the trial and demonstrating a slowing of progression if the treatment is efficacious. Enabling optimal designs and optimizing treatment assignment will require that participants have adequate biological characterization with biomarkers.
The most informative trial design for a two-agent combination therapy trial would employ a 2 x 2 factorial structure where each agent is tested alone and in combination (21). A more efficient approach, however, would be a 2-arm trial of the combination vs. placebo, with deconvolution of the contribution of each agent should the initial approach be successful. In either case, selecting dose and treatment regimens for combination studies is complicated and often leads investigators to take shortcuts, which can lead to misleading results or unacceptable risks to participants. The statistical and regulatory implications of various trial designs are discussed below.
For trials in patients with AD dementia, since many individuals will already be taking acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (e.g., donepezil) and/or memantine (22), add-on designs that combine the standard treatment plus the disease-modifying agent being tested may be necessary. To test combinations in early AD patients, a different type of add-on design could provide more precision. For this type of study, participants would be randomized first to induction therapy with an agent that targets the most prominent apparent pathology (amyloid for most, tau for a few); then after a pre-determined time period (e.g., 6 months), a second treatment is added that targets the second most predominant pathology (e.g., tau, amyloid, inflammation, Lewy bodies, or vascular).
Open perpetual platform trials using a master protocol with defined inclusion and exclusion criteria may be the most efficient way to conduct combination trials. The Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer’s Network Trials Unit (DIAN-TU) has developed such a platform for testing a variety of therapeutics in people with autosomal dominant AD (23). Such platforms enable testing of multiple active treatment arms with shared control arm, and they allow for: 1) pooling of placebo groups, 2) the discontinuation of arms for futility, 3) the addition of new arms including either new drugs or new doses, 4) adaptive randomization, and 5) personalization of arms to specific subgroups (24).


Regulatory issues

Regulatory authorities encourage innovative development approaches for delivering combination therapies for AD. In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published guidance for co-development of two or more new investigational drugs for use in combination (25). According to this guidance, combination therapy is justified for treating serious diseases with unmet medical needs when there is a strong rationale and strong preclinical data for the combination, and when there is a compelling reason for developing the two drugs in tandem rather than independently.
Selecting agents to combine begins with assessing and characterizing whether the interaction between the components is additive, synergistic, or antagonistic. In addition, since most amyloid treatments activate the immune system, nonclinical studies are needed to assess the interaction of combinations with immune mechanisms. How the effectiveness of the combination is defined affects the study design and may depend on the stages of development of the components.  Thus, if one component is already approved, it may be sufficient to demonstrate how much greater is the effect of the combination of new drug plus the approved drug compared to the effect of the approved drug alone. If both components are novel, however, a full factorial design may be needed to understand contributions of the different agents to the treatment response. Additive or synergistic effects may be demonstrated.
Both FDA and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) require preclinical studies of the combination. In some cases, toxicology of the combination will need to be tested, although there have been some studies where regulators were sufficiently confident that a combination would be safe and allowed advancing to Phase 2.


Blazing the trail to combination therapy

In December 2017, Lilly launched the multi-site TRAILBLAZER-ALZ Phase 2 trial, which combined a BACEi with the anti-amyloid monoclonal antibody LY3002813 (NCT03367403), a humanized IgG1 antibody directed at N3pG, an amyloid epitope that is present only in amyloid plaques (26). In preclinical studies, LY3002813 was shown to remove amyloid plaque through microglial-mediated clearance (27). In the PDAPP mouse model, an antiN3pG plus a BACEi removed most pre-existing plaque and improved neuronal health in a synergistic, dose-dependent manner (28).
A phase 1 study of the monoclonal antibody demonstrated a significant reduction in brain amyloid by florbetapir positron emission tomography (PET); and a phase 1 study of the BACEi demonstrated a lowering of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) Aβ, with no safety or tolerability concerns. These results in Phase 1, combined with the preclinical data, prompted Lilly to plan the TRAILBLAZER trial that would include three arms: 1) placebo, 2) N3pG monoclonal antibody alone, and 3) N3pG mAb plus BACEi. Rather than using a full factorial design, external data from multiple ongoing BACEi studies would be used to demonstrate the efficacy of the BACEi alone.
The study enrolled participants with early symptomatic AD who are amyloid positive with a low-to-medium tau burden, randomized to the three arms. These inclusion/exclusion criteria were selected to produce a relatively homogeneous population. A composite scale of cognition and function was selected as the primary outcome, and a robust biomarker strategy was planned to demonstrate the contribution of each component of the combination (29). Other cognitive and functional measures as well as amyloid PET, tau PET, and volumetric magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were included as secondary outcome measures.
The combination BACEi plus N3pG mAb arm of the trial was subsequently discontinued based on data from multiple sources that raised concerns about the risk/benefit profile of BACEi (30). Nonetheless, the study design holds lessons for future trials of combination therapies, including the use of preclinical data in animal models to demonstrate synergy, the use of robust Phase 1 data to simplify Phase 2 combination designs, and the importance of early interaction with regulators to design toxicology and clinical studies.


Moving forward

Despite the discontinuation of the combination therapy arm in the TRAILBLAZER trial, Task Force members unanimously agreed that successful treatment of AD will require combination approaches that target multiple mechanisms and pathways. However, many questions remain regarding how best to move forward in the development of combination therapies.
Task Force members suggested several steps that should be taken to expedite the development of combination therapies:
•    Establish thresholds for pathologies beyond amyloid and tau, including inflammation and vascular load.
•    Pool observational studies to determine natural history of various combinations of pathologies.
•    Negotiate a DIAN-like structure with global resources from companies and academia, for example through the European Prevention of Alzheimer’s Dementia Consortium (EPAD).
•    Enlarge the dialogue about combination therapy to include disease modifying as well as symptomatic treatments and mechanisms that address the neurodegenerative process.
•    Pool resources, for instance by testing add-on compounds in participants enrolled in preclinical or Phase 2 clinical trials with a single agent, having completed the double-blind placebo-controlled phase of the study.

Task Force members also agreed that patient engagement is key to the development of combination therapies, particularly for treatments intended for the presymptomatic stages of the disease.


Acknowledgements: The authors thank Lisa J. Bain for assistance in the preparation of this manuscript.

Conflicts of interest: The Task Force was partially funded by registration fees from industrial participants. These corporations placed no restrictions on this work. Dr. Gauthier reports personal fees from TauRx, Lundbeck Institute, and Esai; and grants from Lilly and Roche, outside the submitted work. Dr. Alam reports personal fees (employment) from EIP Pharma, Inc,  outside the submitted work. Dr. Fillit discloses the following consulting relationships during the past 3 years: Axovant, vTv, Lundbeck, Otsuka, Lilly, RTI, Roche, Genentech, Merck, Samus, Pfizer. He reports no conflicts of interest related to these disclosures that are relevant to this publication. Dr. Iwatsubo has nothing to disclose. Dr. Liu-Seifert reports other from Lilly,  outside the submitted work. Dr. Sabbagh has consulted for Allergan, Biogen, Bracket, Neurotrope, Cortexyme, Roche, Grifols, Sanofi, VTV therapeutic, and Alzheon. Dr Sslloway has nothing to disclose; Dr. Sims, employee of Eli Lilly and Company and holder of stock in Eli Lilly and Company. Dr. Sperling is an employee of H. Lundbeck A/S,  outside the submitted work. Dr. Sperling reports grants from Janssen, during the conduct of the study; personal fees from AC Immune, personal fees from Biogen, personal fees from Roche, personal fees from Eisai, personal fees from Insightec, personal fees from Takeda, personal fees from Merck, personal fees from General Electric, outside the submitted work. Dr. Welsh-Bohmer has contracts with Takeda Pharmaceutical Company and with VeraSci where she is the VP for Neurodegenerative Disorders. Dr. Touchon has nothing to disclose; Dr. Vellas reports grants from Lilly, Merck, Roche, Lundbeck, Biogen, grants from Alzheimer’s Association, European Commission, personal fees from Lilly, Merck, Roche, Biogen, outside the submitted work; Dr. Aisen reports grants from Lilly, personal fees from Proclara, other from Lilly, other from Janssen, other from Eisai, grants from Janssen, grants from NIA, grants from FNIH, grants from Alzheimer’s Association, personal fees from Merck, personal fees from Roche, personal fees from Lundbeck, personal fees from Biogen, personal fees from ImmunoBrain Checkpoint,  outside the submitted work.



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J. Cummings1, K. Blennow2, K. Johnson3, M. Keeley4, R.J. Bateman5, J.L. Molinuevo6, J. Touchon7, P. Aisen8, B. Vellas9 and the EU/US/CTAD Task Force*


* EU/US/CTAD TASK FORCE: EU/US/CTAD TASK FORCE: Bjorn Aaris Gronning (Valby); Paul Aisen (San Diego); John Alam (Cambridge); Sandrine Andrieu (Toulouse), Randall Bateman (St. Louis); Monika Baudler (Basel);  Joanne Bell (Wilmington); Kaj Blennow (Mölndal); Claudine Brisard (Blue Bell); Samantha Budd-Haeberlein (USA); Szofia Bullain (Basel) ; Marc Cantillon (Princeton) ; Maria Carrillo (Chicago);  Gemma Clark (Princeton); Jeffrey Cummings (Las Vegas); Daniel Di Giusto (Basel); Rachelle Doody (Basel); Sanjay Dubé (Aliso Viejo); Michael Egan (North Wales); Howard Fillit (New York); Adam Fleisher (Philadelphia); Mark Forman (North Wales); Cecilia Gabriel-Gracia (Suresnes); Serge Gauthier (Montreal); Jeffrey Harris (South San Francisco); Suzanne Hendrix (Salt Lake City); Dave Henley (Titusville); David Hewitt (Blue Bell); Mads Hvenekilde (Basel); Takeshi Iwatsubo (Tokyo); Keith Johnson (Boston); Michael Keeley (South San Francisco); Gene Kinney (South San Francisco); Ricky Kurzman (Woodcliffe Lake); Valérie Legrand (Nanterre); Stefan Lind (Valby); Hong Liu-Seifert (Indianapolis); Simon Lovestone (Oxford); Johan Luthman (Woodcliffe); Annette Merdes (Munich); David Michelson (Cambridge); Mark Mintun (Philadelphia); José Luis Molinuevo (Barcelona); Susanne Ostrowitzki (South San Francisco); Anton Porsteinsson (Rochester);  Martin Rabe (Woodcliffe Lake); Rema Raman (San Diego); Elena Ratti (Cambridge);  Larisa Reyderman (Woodcliffe Lake); Gary Romano (Titusville); Ivana Rubino (Cambridge); Marwan Noel Sabbagh (Las Vegas);  Stephen Salloway (Providence); Cristina Sampaio (Princeton); Rachel Schindler (USA); Peter Schüler (Langen); Dennis Selkoe (Boston); Eric Siemers (Indianapolis);  John Sims (Indianapolis); Heather Snyder (Chicago); Georgina Spence (Galashiels); Bjorn Sperling (Valby); Reisa Sperling (Boston); Andrew Stephens (Berlin); Joyce Suhy (Newark); Gilles Tamagnan (New Haven); Edmond Teng (South San Francisco); Gary Tong (Valby); Jan Torleif Pedersen (Valby); Jacques Touchon (Montpellier); Bruno Vellas (Toulouse ); Vissia Viglietta (Cambridge) ; Christian Von Hehn (Cambridge); Philipp Von Rosenstiel (Cambridge) ; Michael Weiner (San Francisco); Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer (Durham);  Iris Wiesel (Basel); Haichen Yang (North Wales);  Wagner Zago (South San Francisco); Beyhan Zaim (Woodcliffe Lake); Henrik Zetterberg (Mölndal)

1. University of Nevada Las Vegas, School of Allied Health Sciences and Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; 2. Inst. of Neuroscience and Physiology, University of Gothenburg, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Mölndal, Sweden; 3. Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston MA, USA; 4. Genentech Research and Early Development, So. San Francisco, CA, USA; 5. Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO, USA; 6. BarcelonaBeta Brain Research Center Pasqual Maragall Foundation, Barcelona, Spain; 7. Montpellier University, and INSERM U1061, Montpellier, France; 8. Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute (ATRI), Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, San Diego, CA, USA; 9. Gerontopole, INSERM U1027, Alzheimer’s Disease Research and Clinical Center, Toulouse University Hospital, Toulouse, France

Corresponding Author: Jeffrey Cummings, University of Nevada Las Vegas, School of Allied Health Sciences and Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA,

J Prev Alz Dis 2019;
Published online April 18, 2019,



Efforts to develop effective disease-modifying treatments for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) have mostly targeted the amyloid β (Aβ) protein; however, there has recently been increased interest in other targets including phosphorylated tau and other forms of tau. Aggregated tau appears to spread in a characteristic pattern throughout the brain and is thought to drive neurodegeneration. Both neuropathological and imaging studies indicate that tau first appears in the entorhinal cortex and then spreads to the neocortex. Anti-tau therapies currently in Phase 1 or 2 trials include passive and active immunotherapies designed to prevent aggregation, seeding, and spreading, as well as small molecules that modulate tau metabolism and function. EU/US/CTAD Task Force members support advancing the development of anti-tau therapies, which will require novel imaging agents and biomarkers, a deeper understanding of tau biology and the dynamic interaction of tau and Aβ protein, and development of multiple targets and candidate agents addressing the tauopathy of AD. Incorporating tau biomarkers in AD clinical trials will provide additional knowledge about the potential to treat AD by targeting tau.

Key words: Alzheimer’s disease, tau, tauopathy, therapeutics, biomarkers.



No new drugs have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) since 2003 (1) despite the fact that an estimated 5.7 million Americans and 50 million people worldwide have AD today, and the prevalence is expected to grow to 152 million worldwide by 2050 (2, 3).  AD clinical trials have failed at a very high rate: between 2002 and 2012, 99.6% of AD drugs tested failed to demonstrate clinical efficacy (1). Possible reasons for the high failure rate include targeting the wrong pathology or the wrong stage of disease (4, 5). Inappropriately designed trials and other methodological or unknown factors may have also contributed to treatment failures (6).
Despite the disappointments of the past 20 years, many experts in the Alzheimer’s community see reasons for optimism, including the emergence of novel drugs addressing a broader array of mechanisms than in the past (7). A recent report on the status of the AD drug development pipeline identified 112 agents: 26 in Phase 3 studies, 75 in Phase 2 studies, and 23 in Phase 1 studies (8). Moreover, whereas most of the negative studies in recent years targeted brain amyloidosis and amyloid β (Aβ), current studies are targeting a broader repertoire of mechanisms, including tau pathology. Of the 26 agents in Phase 3, only one targets tau, while 9 of the agents in Phase 2 (5 immunotherapies and 4 anti-aggregation agents) target tau (8).


Biology of tau and anti-tau therapeutics

The microtubule-associated protein tau, commonly referred to simply as tau, is found in a hyperphosphorylated form as insoluble, filamentous tangles and neuropil threads as well as dystrophic neurites in the AD brain (9). Along with plaques made up of aggregated Aβ protein, neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) represent one of the hallmark pathologies of AD. Like Aβ, tau is found in several forms in the brain including monomers, oligomers, and fibrillary tangles (10).  Tau pathology also plays a central role in other neurodegenerative diseases known collectively as tauopathies, including the primary tauopathies frontotemporal lobar degeneration with tau inclusions (FTLD-tau), Pick’s disease, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), corticobasal degeneration (CBD), argyrophilic grain disease (AGD), and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) (11).
Six isoforms of tau exist; it binds to several other proteins; and it undergoes many post-translational modifications, all of which contribute to its multiple functions in the brain. Tau protein plays important roles in cytoskeletal stability, cell signaling, synaptic plasticity, and neurogenesis (12, 13). In the AD brain, NFTs and neuropil threads composed of aggregated hyperphosphorylated tau are thought to be the primary drivers of neurodegeneration, although the mechanisms underlying the pathogenic process and the exact relationships of tau to Aβ remain unclear. Evidence also strongly suggests that tau propagates or spreads between cells (14) and that neuroinflammation triggered by microglial activation and astrogliosis contributes to tau-associated pathogenesis. Microglia may contribute to tau spreading (15). While postmortem and tau positron emission tomography (PET) studies indicate that tau spreading is associated with disease progression (16, 17), there are many unanswered questions regarding the rate of seeding or the effects of tau spreading on neuronal biology. If the spread of tau is driving clinical and cognitive changes, this would support intervening at the earliest stages of the tau-related disease process.
Neuropathological and imaging studies using PET suggest that tau aggregates are found in the entorhinal cortex and then the neocortex.  If and how this drives neurodegeneration, what forms of tau are toxic, and the relationship of tau to amyloid in terms of toxicity remain unanswered questions. Tau pathology correlates much more closely to cognitive decline than does amyloid pathology (18, 19), and a recent study suggests that tau aggregation is linked to neurodegeneration and clinical manifestations of AD (20).
The complexity of tau biology provides many potential therapeutic targets to prevent tau production, aggregation, or spread at the level of transcription, phosphorylation, depolymerization, and transport. For example, preclinical studies indicate that antibodies against tau can prevent the trans-synaptic transmission of tau between neurons (21). A Phase 1 study of the humanized monoclonal antibody ABBV-8E12 showed acceptable safety and tolerability, which provided the basis for initiating a Phase 3 study in PSP patients to assess dose-related efficacy (22). The antibody is intended to prevent the trans-neuronal spread of the tau protein. Other monoclonal antibodies being assessed in early phase studies and targeting aspects of the tau protein include BIIB092, LY3303560, and RO7105705 (Table 1).

Table 1. Phase 1 and 2 clinical Trials targeting tau in AD populations

Table 1. Phase 1 and 2 clinical Trials targeting tau in AD populations

ADAS-cog = Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale, cognition subscale, ADCS-ADL = Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study – Activities of Daily Living Inventory, AEs= adverse events, CDR-SB = Clinical Dementia Rating Scale Sum of Boxes, CGIC = Clinical Global Impressions Scale, FAQ = functional activities questionnaire, fMRI = functional magnetic resonance imaging, HAM-D = Hamilton Psychiatric Rating Scale for Depression, iADRS=integrated AD rating scale, MMSE = Mini-mental state examination, NPI = neuropsychiatric inventory, NPS battery = neuropsychiatric symptoms battery, RBANS= Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status, TEAEs = treatment-emergent adverse events. UPSA=University of California Performance Based Skills Assessment, brief version


Current status of anti-tau therapies in the AD treatment pipeline

One putative anti-tau agent, TRx0237 was studied in a Phase 3 trial and failed to show a difference between different doses.  Studies in mouse models suggested that the agent functioned as an aggregation inhibitor and reduced the number of tau positive neurons (23); no target engagement biomarker was included in trial to determine if this was achieved in humans (24). Subgroup analyses suggest that some patients may have benefited from therapy and further studies of this compound are underway (24). Table 1 summarizes the anti-tau agents that are currently being tested in Phase 1 or Phase 2 clinical trials. These include both passive and active immunotherapies with monoclonal antibodies as well as drugs that affect the molecular structure of tau to modulate its function or prevent phosphorylation.
Other anti-tau drugs are also in development for AD including epigallocatechin-3 gallate (EGCG), a polyphenolic flavanoid extracted from green tea 25, and AC Immune’s tau morphomers, small molecules designed to inhibit aggregation and seeding and disaggregate already formed tau aggregates. Preclinical studies suggest that tau morphomers reduce pathological tau, improve cognition and function, and reduce microglia activation. Importantly, they are capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier.


Outcome measures and biomarkers

Tau PET imaging

Tau and Aβ aggregates in the brain have been investigated in several cohort studies, both neuropathologically at autopsy and in living people using PET (26-28). The overall picture emerging from these studies is that among cognitively normal individuals, about one-third have high amyloid, and among those with high amyloid about half also have high tau loads. A minority of cognitively normal individuals have sub-threshold levels of amyloid and high tau. The anatomic location of tau deposition may be important. These observations raise the possibility that quantifying progression of tau pathology may provide an early indicator of disease.
Johnson and colleagues have investigated the anatomical variability of amyloid and tau deposition in more than 400 individuals. These data indicate that distribution of tau in the rhinal cortex correlates with amyloid burden and that low amyloid individuals just starting to show elevations in tau are those most likely to be on the way to neocortical tauopathy. By the time tau levels have increased in the inferior temporal cortex, individuals may show significant impairments. These data support the hypothesis that amyloid is associated with tau spread.
Longitudinal data also provide support for these measures as useful for staging in order to establish a basis on which to measure change in serial imaging that could be useful in the clinical and clinical trial settings. Four stages were proposed:
Stage 0 – No signal exceeding background, consistent with Braak 0.
Stage 1 – Rhinal cortex signal emerging in a minority of low-amyloid clinically unimpaired individuals (allocortex, MTL) consistent with Braak I/II
Stage 2 – Inferior temporal signal emerging in the presence of high levels of fibrillar amyloid in clinically unimpaired individuals (corresponding to Braak stages III/VI)
Stage 3 – Additional neocortical binding in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and AD patients (beyond inferior temporal; corresponding to Braak stages V/VI)
Figure 1 provides an example of images with high and low tau burden.

Figure 1. Flortaucipir images with low (Braak I/II) and high (Braak III/VI) levels of tau. The individual whose image is shown on the left had low amyloid levels; the one shown on the right had high amyloid levels (images courtesy of Keith Johnson)

Figure 1. Flortaucipir images with low (Braak I/II) and high (Braak III/VI) levels of tau. The individual whose image is shown on the left had low amyloid levels; the one shown on the right had high amyloid levels (images courtesy of Keith Johnson)


CSF and blood biomarkers of tau

A systematic review and meta-analysis of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and blood biomarkers showed that CSF levels of total tau (T-tau), phosphorylated tau (p-tau), Aβ42, and neurofilament light (NfL), and plasma levels of T-tau were associated with AD and MCI due to AD but with quite pronounced, assay-dependent variation between studies, and no or only weak correlation with CSF T-tau levels (29-31). With regard to P-tau, a semi-sensitive assay for tau phosphorylated at threonine 181 (similar to the most employed CSF test) with electrochemiluminescence detection has been developed (32). Using this assay, plasma P-tau concentration was higher in AD dementia patients than controls. Plasma P-tau concentration was associated with both Aβ and tau PET and more AD-associated than the corresponding plasma T-tau test, which are promising results in need of replication. While conventional plasma measures of Aβ42 and Aβ40 by ELISA do not show a consistent change in clinically diagnosed AD cases as compared with cognitively unimpaired elderly (29), recent studies of blood Aβ using single molecule array (Simoa) or mass spectrometry have shown a relationship between blood levels of Aβ 40/42 ratios and the brain burden of Aβ (33-35). NfL indicates axonal damage and can also be measured in blood (36). Blood NfL shows particular promise as a biomarker of neurodegeneration in AD (37, 38) but high levels are also found in many other disorders characterized by neurodegeneration (39, 40). Given that NfL is a general neurodegeneration marker and not specifically involved in AD pathophysiology, it may give more unbiased information than tau biomarkers in clinical trials. Furthermore, the correlation between CSF and blood levels of NfL is very high (36), which is not the case for blood measures of tau (30). Synaptic proteins, including dendritic protein neurogranin and the pre-synaptic growth-associated protein 43 (GAP-43), show marked increases in CSF and are seemingly specific for AD (41, 42). Emerging CSF biomarkers including neuron-specific enolase (NSE), visinin-like protein 1 (VLP-1), heart fatty acid binding protein (HFPAP), and YKL-40 (a marker of glial activation) show moderate associations with AD (29, 43).
CSF tau comprises many different tau fragments that reflect processing of secreted tau, and some of these fragments may prove to be useful diagnostically (44) or provide information about tau kinetics in neurons (45). New assays are being developed to measure additional endogenous tau fragments that may correlate with tau pathology. For example, one of these tau fragments, tau368, results from cleavage of tau by asparagine endopeptidase (AEP) at position 368. The result of this is tau hyperphosphorylation, impaired microtubule assembly, and aggregation of truncated tau in neurofibrillary tangles (46).  Inhibiting AEP may represent a novel therapeutic strategy for neurodegenerative disease (47).  Tau368 can be measured in CSF and a first small study shows an association with longitudinal increase in tau PET tracer retention (48). Further, mass spectrometry studies show that CSF tau is specifically cleaved to a mid-domain fragment between amino acids 222-225 (45). Using an assay based on an end-specific tau x-224 monoclonal antibody, increased CSF levels were found in AD, while tau224 levels were low in other tauopathies (49). Exosomal tau has been evaluated as a biomarker but the studies have not been replicated and it is presently not possible to draw any conclusion on whether or not exosomal tau is a biomarker for AD.
The varying measures of tau report on different aspects of AD biology. In the amyloid, tau, neurodegeneration (ATN) Framework for AD diagnosis (50), tau PET and CSF p-tau are viewed as reporters of the presence and spread of tau pathology, whereas CSF t-tau, fluorodeoxyglucose PET, and MRI atrophy are seen as reporters of neurodegeneration. Recent evidence suggests that the soluble forms of tau are increased in production with greater amyloid plaque burden (45), while aggregated forms of tau appear at later stages of AD pathophysiology, closer to symptom onset. Tau markers — tau PET, p-tau, t-tau — measure different aspects of AD from this perspective.
For use in clinical trials of anti-tau agents, CSF biomarkers of amyloid and tau are needed to provide evidence of target engagement, enable enrichment of trials with appropriate participants, and show downstream effects of treatment (51). Lowering of CSF p-tau may suggest an effect on tau phosphorylation; however, more studies are needed to evaluate how CSF p-tau relates to brain pathology. Biomarker studies in recent clinical trials of the anti-amyloid antibodies bapineuzumab, gantenerumab, and BAN-2401 suggest that declines in CSF p-tau, t-tau, neurogranin and NfL indicate a downstream effect of Aβ immunotherapy on neurodegeneration, tau pathology, and synaptic degeneration (52-54).
Fully automated CSF immunoassays of AD biomarkers are now available, and in a study comparing fully automated CSF immunoassay with amyloid PET imaging, a multinational group of investigators found that the CSF tau/Aβ ratio was as accurate as amyloid PET in predicting clinical progression among patients with MCI (55) .


Challenges and unanswered questions

While the development of tau-targeted therapies is seen by many in the AD research community as one of the highest priority efforts, the complexity of tau protein processing gives rise to many challenges that have slowed development of tau-based therapies (56). Among the questions raised by the Task Force were these:
•    What is known about the normal physiological function of tau, and are there potential negative/untoward consequences of reducing tau?
•    What is the effect of tau suppression on spatiotemporal deposition of tau?
•    What degree of tau lowering should be targeted to achieve an optimal therapeutic effect?
•    What other factors may contribute to tau-based neurodegeneration (e.g., inflammation, aging, or vascular factors?)
•    What is the relationship of amyloid-beta and tau?
•    What is the relationship of soluble forms of tau and aggregated tau deposits?
•    What is the role of microglia activation in the development of tau pathology?
•    Since most tau is intracellular, will targeting it extracellularly be sufficient; or is there a window of time during which limiting extracellular tau would show a treatment benefit?
•    What happens downstream when an antibody binds to tau? Is it sequestered or disposed of through cellular mechanisms or the glymphatic system 57 and does this result in downstream preservation of neurons?
•    What are the best tau epitopes or tau fragments to target?
•    Which tau fragments correlate best with AD-type neurodegeneration in CSF or in plasma?
•    Which p-tau variants in CSF or blood correlate best with tau pathology in AD, or can differentiate AD from other tauopathies?
•    Are there differential rates of change in tau deposition across the anatomy?
•    What regions should tau PET target to demonstrate target engagement, and how should tau PET be developed for use in clinical trials to predict treatment response or measure treatment effect?
•    What will be required to make tau PET useful clinically for diagnosis, prognosis, or prediction of treatment response?
•    Do trials for anti-tau agents require similar structures as for Aβ-targeting agents even though the dynamics of the protein are different?
•    What is the best population, taking into account the ATN stage, to target?
•    Should anti-tau clinical trials focus on subpopulations and if so, which subpopulations?
•    Would the best path forward for anti-tau agents be to test them in combination trials with Aβ-targeting agents or drugs that target other pathologies such as neuroinflammation?
•    How can tau-PET be used to stage AD?
•    What are the best tau-related outcomes for AD trials?



Anti-tau therapies are beginning to populate the AD drug development pipeline, mostly in Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials. However, anti-tau treatments have not yet shown evidence of a treatment effect in patients. The Task Force concluded that the development of anti-tau treatment will be determined by multiple trials and will require contributions from industry, academia, and advocacy groups.
The Task Force also called for incorporating CSF tau measures in all anti-tau trials. At a later date, tau PET may also be a viable option. For a biomarker to accurately assess target engagement and for pharmacodynamic studies, assays need to be designed specifically for the therapeutic antibody in addition to general tau-based assays. Such assays would enable exploration of whether a change in a specific tau species indicates that the therapeutic antibody binds tau in the brain parenchyma and if bound tau is secreted into the CSF.
Most Task Force members agreed that anti-tau trials are justified because AD symptoms are likely driven by the spread of tau and its degenerative effects, as well as by amyloid. However, most members also agreed that the specific tau-based mechanisms that will likely provide a treatment effect from anti-tau therapy are unclear and that significant observational and trial related studies will help better inform which tau targets will be most effective.


Acknowledgements: The authors thank Lisa J. Bain for assistance in the preparation of this manuscript.

Conflicts of interest: The Task Force was partially funded by registration fees from industrial participants. These corporations placed no restrictions on this work. Dr. Cummings is the Chief Scientific Officer of CNS Innovations. He acknowledges funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (Grant: P20GM109025) and support from Keep Memory Alive; Consultation for Pharmaceutical Companies: Dr. Cummings has provided consultation to Acadia, Accera, Actinogen, AgeneBio, Alkahest, Allergan, Alzheon, Avanir, Axsome, Binomics, BiOasis Technologies, Biogen, Bracket, Denali, Diadem, EIP Pharma, Eisai, Genentech, Green Valley, Grifols, Hisun, Idorsia, Lundbeck, MedAvante, Merck, Otsuka, Pain Therapeutics, Probiodrug, Proclara, QR, Resverlogix, Roche, Samumed, Shinkei Therapeutics, Sunovion, Suven, Takeda, and United Neuroscience pharmaceutical and assessment companies. Consultation for Foundations: Dr. Cummings has provided consultation to Global Alzheimer Platform (GAP). Stock: Dr. Cummings owns stock in ADAMAS, BioAsis, Prana, MedAvante, Neurokos, and QR Pharma. Board member: None. Speaker/lecturer: None. Other: Dr. Cummings owns the copyright of the Neuropsychiatric Inventory (NPI). Dr. Cummings is the Chief Scientific Officer of CNS Innovations.Expert witness/legal consultation: None. NIH support: COBRE grant # P20GM109025; TRC-PAD # R01AG053798; DIAGNOSE CTE # U01NS093334.Research Support: None. Spousal ownership or significant financial interest in a relevant company: CNS Innovations. Dr. Johnson has consulted for Merck, Eli Lilly, Novartis, Biogen, Takeda, Roche, Eisai, Piramal, and GE. Dr. Keeley reports that he is an employee of Genentech. Dr. Bateman reports grants from BrightFocus Foundation, Pharma Consortium (Abbvie, AstraZeneca, Biogen, Eisai, Eli Lilly and Co., Hoffman La-Roche Inc., Janssen, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventi),  the Tau SILK/PET Consortium (Biogen/Abbvie/Lilly), Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration FTD Biomarkers Initiative, Anonymous Foundation, GHR Foundation, NIH, Alzheimer’s Association, Lilly, Rainwater Foundation Tau Consortium, and Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, grants, personal fees and non-financial support from Roche and Janssen, personal fees and non-financial support from Pfizer, Eisai, and Merck, and non-financial support from Avid Radiopharmaceuticals outside the submitted work. Washington University, Dr. Bateman, and David Holtzman have equity ownership interest in C2N Diagnostics and receive royalty income based on technology (stable isotope labeling kinetics and blood plasma assay) licensed by Washington University to C2N Diagnostics. RJB receives income from C2N Diagnostics for serving on the scientific advisory board. Washington University, with RJB as co-inventor, has submitted the US nonprovisional patent application “Methods for Measuring the Metabolism of CNS Derived Biomolecules In Vivo” and provisional patent application “Plasma Based Methods for Detecting CNS Amyloid Deposition”. Dr. Molinuevo reports personal fees from Alergan, from Oryzon, from Genentech, from Novartis, from Lundbeck, from Biogen, from Lilly, from Janssen, Green Valley, from MSD, from Eisai, from Alector and from Raman Health,  outside the submitted work. Dr. Touchon has nothing to disclose. Dr. Aisen reports grants from Lilly, personal fees from Proclara, other from Lilly, other from Janssen, other from Eisai, grants from Janssen, grants from NIA, grants from FNIH, grants from Alzheimer’s Association, personal fees from Merck, personal fees from Roche, personal fees from Lundbeck, personal fees from Biogen, personal fees from ImmunoBrain Checkpoint,  outside the submitted work. Dr. Vellas reports grants from Lilly, Merck, Roche, Lundbeck, Biogen, grants from Alzheimer’s Association, European Commission, personal fees from Lilly, Merck, Roche, Biogen,  outside the submitted work.



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P. Novak1, N. Zilka2, M. Zilkova2, B. Kovacech2, R. Skrabana2, M. Ondrus1, L. Fialova2, E. Kontsekova2, M. Otto3, M. Novak4


1. AXON Neuroscience CRM Services SE, Dvorakovo nabrezie 10, 811 02 Bratislava, Slovakia; 2. AXON Neuroscience R&D Services SE, Dvorakovo nabrezie 10, 811 02 Bratislava, Slovakia; 3. Ulm University, Department of Neurology, Oberer Eselsberg 45, 89081 Ulm, Germany; 4. AXON Neuroscience SE, Arch. Makariou & Kalogreon 4, 6016 Larnaca, Cyprus

Corresponding Author: P. Novak, Axon Neuroscience CRM Services SE, Slovakia, +421911187237,

J Prev Alz Dis 2019;1(6):63-69
Published online December 14, 2018,



Neurofibrillary tau protein pathology is closely associated with the progression and phenotype of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease and other tauopathies, and a high-priority target for disease-modifying therapies. Herein, we provide an overview of the development of AADvac1, an active immunotherapy against tau pathology, and tau epitopes that are potential targets for immunotherapy. The vaccine leads to the production of antibodies that target conformational epitopes in the microtubule-binding region of tau, with the aim to prevent tau aggregation and spreading of pathology, and promote tau clearance. The therapeutic potential of the vaccine was evaluated in transgenic rats and mice expressing truncated, non mutant tau protein, which faithfully replicate of human tau pathology. Treatment with AADvac1 resulted in reduction of neurofibrillary pathology and insoluble tau in their brains, and amelioration of their deleterious phenotype. The vaccine was highly immunogenic in humans, inducing production of IgG antibodies against the tau peptide in 29/30 treated elderly patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s. These antibodies were able to recognise insoluble tau proteins in Alzheimer patients’ brains. Treatment with AADvac1 proved to be remarkably safe, with injection site reactions being the only adverse event tied to treatment. AADvac1 is currently being investigated in a phase 2 study in Alzheimer’s disease, and a phase 1 study in non-fluent primary progressive aphasia, a neurodegenerative disorder with a high tau pathology component.

Key words: tau, Alzheimer’s disease, tauopathy, immunotherapy, clinical trial.



Neurofibrillary pathology, composed of misfolded tau protein, is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and a range of non-AD tauopathies (1-4). Long neglected by a large portion of the AD field and seen as a by-product of amyloid β pathology, neurofibrillary tau pathology has been established as the closest correlate of cortical atrophy (5) and clinical progression in AD (6-8). Pathological changes on tau protein became a tempting target for disease-modifying therapy, with the first tau-targeted immunotherapy entering clinical development in 2013 (9). The steps taken along the way were recently summarised by Iqbal et al. (10) and the current state of drug development thoroughly reviewed by Li & Götz (11).
The function of microtubule-associated protein tau is regulated by alternative splicing, localisation, oligomerisation, phosphorylation and other posttranslational modifications, accompanied by conformational change (10). Tau is a vital component of the cytoskeleton and a multifunctional molecule involved in dynamics of neuronal microtubules, neuronal polarisation and synapse formation (12). Recent research indicates that it possesses diverse other functions, such as ribosomal DNA transcription, nucleolar transcriptional regulation, RNA metabolism and brain insulin signalling, morphological and synaptic maturation of new-born hippocampal granule neurons, and trafficking of cellular components (13, 14). In disease, tau protein undergoes a transformation that leads to the loss of vital functions and a toxic gain of function including microtubule mis-assembly, cytoskeleton disruption, mitochondrial impairment, oxidative stress, DNA damage, and neuroinflammation (11, 12, 15-18).
The post-translational modifications of tau protein are legion, with phosphorylation and truncation being specifically associated with pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease and other tauopathies (19-21). Specifically, it was shown that phosphorylation and truncation lead to enhancement of abnormal tau-tau interaction and tau oligomerisation in vitro and in vivo, generating precursors of oligomeric pathological tau (22-24). These modifications bestow novel conformations and epitope structure upon pathological moieties of tau (25, 26), which in turn make them immunologically distinguishable from healthy tau proteins, and thus an ideal target for immunotherapy. Tau epitopes in disease can arise due to aberrant phosphorylation (20), truncation (27), spontaneous conformational switch and/or template-assisted misfolding (28, 29). A crucial aspect is the distribution of these neo-epitopes among pathological tau species. As tau aggregation in AD takes place via the microtubule-binding repeat domain (30), this domain will be present in all pathological tau oligomers, and the neo-epitopes therein are likely to be conserved in the course of the disease. Since tau in the oligomers is frequently truncated in AD (21), neo-epitopes at the molecule’s termini are cleaved off in a subset of pathological tau forms. Such species become untargetable by therapies aimed at the termini (29). It is known that tau hyperphosphorylation at individual epitopes waxes and wanes over the course of the disease (31), making targeting of certain individual phospho-sites less effective.
Tau aggregates have the intriguing ability to spread from neurons affected by tau pathology to their healthy neighbours and perpetuate neurofibrillary degeneration therein, behaving in essence in a prion like fashion (32). These particles named «tauons», were first proposed in 1994 (33) and shown experimentally in 2009 (34). Locally, the spreading of tau aggregates can occur via diffusion based on proximity, while the spreading pattern to distant brain regions is based on neuronal connectivity (35, 36). The common immunological denominators of these propagating tau species are logical drug targets, and preventing the spread of tauons will halt neurofibrillary pathology and the progression of neurodegeneration in the patients’ brains.


Animal model design

An essential step in the development of disease-modifying therapies is the development of a suitable model that recapitulates biochemical features of human tau pathology faithfully. Only such a model has a high predictive value, making it more likely that an investigational medicinal product will perform as well in humans as it did in animals. The development of models for tau pathology has often taken a shortcut via using mutant tau (22, 37). However, no tau mutations have been identified in Alzheimer’s disease so far (4), and it is known that mutant tau filaments are conformationally different from healthy tau (28). In order to prepare a genuine model of Alzheimer tau pathology, we have instead opted for transgenes conferring expression of truncated 3R and 4R tau derived from sporadic Alzheimer’s disease (38). When expressed in brains of rats and mice, the truncated tau proteins induce extensive neurofibrillary degeneration that fulfils the criteria for human NFT pathology (thioflavin-S reactive, Congo-red birefringent, argyrophilic). Sarkosyl insoluble tau in these animals is composed of both endogenous and transgenic tau, and featuring both low- and high-molecular-weight filament and oligomeric tau species and multiple truncated forms. The pathology is accompanied by neuroinflammation, oxidative stress, synaptic abnormalities, and progressive neuronal dysfunction resulting in neurobehavioural impairment and death of the animals, with lifespan depending on transgene expression level (39-46).

Figure 1. Rat models expressing truncated tau 151-391/4R faithfully recapitulate human neurofibrillary tau pathology

Figure 1. Rat models expressing truncated tau 151-391/4R faithfully recapitulate human neurofibrillary tau pathology

Neurofibrillary tangles produced by transgenic animals were A) argyrophilic, B) Congo-red positive, C) thioflavin S reactive, and D) AT8-reactive, as one would expect of human NFTs. The animals displayed neuroinflammation, with increase in microglial numbers, altered morphology, and shift towards a phagocytic morphology (arrows) (E, F).


Preclinical development of AADvac1

In our efforts to identify a functionally important common denominator of pathological tau protein, we have initially generated a panel of anti-tau antibodies, including antibody DC8E8, which displayed a range of highly desirable traits. The DC8E8 antibody recognises three or four individual epitopes in the microtubule-binding region of 3R- and 4R-tau protein, respectively. The recognition is phosphorylation-independent. Importantly, the accessibility of the epitopes is highly increased in truncated tau, which translates into a pronounced preference of DC8E8 for the precursors of pathological tau over physiological tau. The antibody was able to recognise both early (pre tangle), intermediate (intracellular tangle) and late (ghost tangle) manifestations of tau pathology, with no off-target binding in a cross reactivity study in a range of normal human tissues. In Western blot, it recognised the entire ladder of pathological tau protein moieties extracted from AD brains (47). Functionally, DC8E8 was found to inhibit tau aggregation in vitro, probably by action of markedly flexible CDRH3 and CDRL1 loops (47). We studied in details the DC8E8 binding site topology by X-ray crystallography. DC8E8 possesses a 10 Å-deep binding pocket, extending over 18 × 14 Å of surface. The shape of this pocket indicates that the DC8E8 epitope on tau 299HVPGGG304 adopts a fold protruding into this space to bind in the DC8E8 combining site, creating a 180° turn on the tau chain (47).
It is worthy of note that several potential antibody candidates that, while highly specific for pathological, AD-derived forms of tau, have promoted tau aggregation instead of inhibiting it (47), highlighting the need to thoroughly evaluate the properties of any promising tau immunotherapy agents.
Subsequently, DC8E8 was used as a template to design an immunogen that would stimulate the production of antibodies with DC8E8-like properties. The peptide 294KDNIKHVPGGGS305, comprising one of the DC8E8 epitopes, was found to fulfil these requirements. Interestingly, an X-ray crystallography study (47) of the DC8E8 binding site suggests that the peptide forms a sharply protruding turn even in the unbound state in solution. Thus, AADvac1 contains the peptide hapten with a turn motif at the immunologically dominant residues, which promotes production of antibodies with DC8E8-like binding properties.
This peptide hapten was coupled to keyhole limpet haemocyanin (KLH) carrier and formulated with aluminium hydroxide adjuvant to yield the highly immunogenic vaccine AADvac1. The carrier serves to provide necessary T-cell epitopes without eliciting a T-cell response against tau, thus circumventing the problems seen with early anti-amyloid-β immunotherapy (i.e. the meningoencephalitis observed with AN1792) (48). Active anti-amyloid immunotherapies have similarly used hapten-carrier conjugates to address the same problem (49).
Similarly to what was observed with DC8E8 treatment in mice (22, 47), administration of AADvac1 to transgenic rats expressing truncated tau proved to be highly efficacious. The vaccine induced high IgG1-dominated antibody titres; no tau-directed T-cell response was observed. The amount of neurofibrillary tangles in the rodents’ brains was reduced (see Figure 2); sarcosyl-insoluble tau in the animals’ brains was reduced by ~70%, and pathological phospho-tau species by up to 95% (see Figure 3). This highlights the fact that while AADvac1 targets a conformational epitope, it also affects phospho-tau species. The proposed mechanism behind this is effect the antibody-mediated elimination of abnormal tau seeds that promote the spreading of tau pathology. Thus, the substrate for kinases – full length, truncated and oligomerised tau molecules – are removed, which results in reduced amount of hyperphosphorylated tau. Along with reduction of neurofibrillary pathology, the neurobehavioural phenotype of the animals was similarly improved (9).

Figure 2. Active vaccination reduced the number of transgenic rats developing extensive neurofibrillary pathology

Figure 2. Active vaccination reduced the number of transgenic rats developing extensive neurofibrillary pathology

Immunostaining with AT8, pT212 and pS214 shows low numbers of neurofibrillary tangles in the brainstem of treated transgenic rats (B), (E) and (H) compared with untreated transgenic rats (A), (D) and (G). Immunisation lowered the number of transgenic rats with extensive neurofibrillary degeneration by 55% (C) and (F) or by 77% (I). Modified from [9] originally published by BioMed Central, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Figure 3. Immunisation with AADvac1 vaccine reduced tau oligomers and tau hyperphosphorylation

Figure 3. Immunisation with AADvac1 vaccine reduced tau oligomers and tau hyperphosphorylation

Western blot analysis with pan-tau monoclonal antibody DC25 showed reduction in oligomeric tau in the brain of transgenic rats treated with tau peptide vaccine (A). The monomeric endogenous rat tau proteins run between 43 and 68 kDa marker bands, whereas monomeric transgenic tau comprises multiple phospho-species between 29 and 43 kDa marker bands. In the vaccine-treated animals, there are only remnants of non phosphorylated transgene running just above the 29 kDa marker band. Western blot analysis revealed significant reduction of hyperphosphorylated tau species phosphorylated at Thr217 (monoclonal antibody (mAb) DC217) (B), pThr231 (mAb DC209) (C), pSer202/pThr205 (mAb AT8) (D) and pThr181 (mAb DC179) (E). (F) The graph represents the quantification and statistical evaluation of the difference between animals treated with vaccine and those treated with adjuvant only; *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01. Modified from (9) originally published by BioMed Central, licensed under CC BY 4.0.


Finally, GLP toxicology studies of AADvac1 were conducted in mice, rats, dogs, and rabbits, with the vaccine being well-tolerated at all administered dose levels in all tested species throughout the course of all studies. Single-dose toxicity studies were carried out in Wistar rats, with doses of up to 160 μg Axon Peptide 108 (coupled to KLH). Three individual chronic toxicity studies were conducted in rabbits, with doses of up to 200 μg Axon Peptide 108 (coupled to KLH) per dose, and up to 12 individual doses being administered over the course of 34 weeks. CNS safety pharmacology studies were carried out in mice (Irwin screen test); cardiorespiratory safety pharmacology studies were carried out in Beagle dogs.


Clinical development

Phase 1 (AD)

The first-in man clinical study of AADvac1 was initiated in 2013 and concluded in 2015 (50). As AADvac1 was the first tau-targeting immunotherapy investigated in humans, the enrolment of the initial 8 patients was performed in a stepwise manner. These patients were observed for at least 3 months before recruiting the remaining 22 patients. The trials’ primary purpose, safety assessment, provided encouraging results: the only adverse events clearly tied to treatment were (mostly mild) reversible injection site reactions.
The study’s duration was 24 weeks. Patients were administered 6 individual doses of AADvac1 (40 μg Axon Peptide 108 (coupled to KLH) with aluminium hydroxide (containing 0·5 mg Al³+) in a phosphate buffer volume of 0·3 mL) in 4 week intervals; patients allocated to placebo have received 3 doses of placebo, followed by a switch to AADvac1 treatment.
The study’s 18 month follow-up trial, conducted to assess the persistence of the antibody response, response to booster doses, and long-term effects of AADvac1 on safety, MRI volumetry, and cognition was concluded in 2016 (data are not published yet). Two booster doses of AADvac1 at 6-month intervals were administered over the course of the follow-up; including the initial vaccination regimen, patients have received a total of 8 AADvac1 doses over the course of 96 weeks.
One hurdle that any active immunotherapy for AD has to overcome is the generally reduced immune fitness of the elderly population (51). In this regard, the results were highly encouraging, since the peptide-KLH conjugate in AADvac1 was able to induce the desired IgG antibody response against the tau peptide in 29 out of 30 patients enrolled in the study. IgG titres continued to increase over the initial 6 dose regimen.
The antibodies generated by the patients’ immune systems were able to target also recombinant misdisordered truncated tau protein aa151-391/4R, and tau pathology in brain samples from AD patients, as shown by Western blotting).

Figure 4. IgG antibody response against the tau peptide component of AADvac1 continues to rise over the initial 6 dose regimen

Figure 4. IgG antibody response against the tau peptide component of AADvac1 continues to rise over the initial 6 dose regimen

The assay’s lower limit of quantification at a titre of 100 stands in for «no response». Upper limit of quantification at the titre of 204800. Non-responder indicated by red rectangle. Error bars denote geometric mean and 95% CI.


Following the initial 6-dose treatment regimen, the IgG titres in responders ranged from 1:4925 to >1:204800, as a function of the patients’ degree of immune competence (Figure 4). Patients with higher titres generally had high CD4+ lymphocyte counts, and low neutrophil counts. The sole non-responder displayed poor results in haematological assessments (low CD4+ T-helper cell counts, low absolute and relative lymphocyte counts, high absolute and relative neutrophil counts). This variability in the strength of the antibody response needs to be taken into account in any immunogenicity studies of active vaccines in seniors and should be reflected in adequate sample sizes.
Cognition, measured by the ADAS-Cog11, Letter fluency, and Category fluency tests, was stable over the initial 6 months of treatment. Due to the limited sample size of the study and the short duration of observation, this is no hard proof of efficacy, but is compatible with what would be observed with an efficacious compound.

Phase 2 (AD)

Based on the high immunogenicity, good safety profile, and cognitive trends observed in the phase 1 clinical trial, we have initiated the phase 2 study «ADAMANT» in mild Alzheimer’s disease (EudraCT 2015 000630-30, NCT 02579252). The trial is a double-blinded, randomised, placebo controlled, parallel group safety and efficacy study, enrolling patients with biomarker evidence of hippocampal atrophy and/or pathological tau protein and amyloid profiles in the CSF, in an MMSE range of 20-26.

Figure 5. : Sera of selected patients treated with AADvac1 detect high- and low-molecular-weight pathological tau species in all assessed brain extracts

Figure 5. : Sera of selected patients treated with AADvac1 detect high- and low-molecular-weight pathological tau species in all assessed brain extracts

(A) Sera from different AADvac1-treated patients detect the same AD brain extract. (B) Intensity of the staining is proportional to the antibody titre generated by the patients against pathological tau.


The patients will receive 11 vaccinations over the period of two years. In comparison to the phase 1 study and its follow up, the trial features an adapted treatment regimen, with booster doses administered at 3 month intervals (instead of 6 month intervals).
With 208 enrolled patients, the trial is powered to detect a 47% slowing of patient decline, as measured by the CDR-SB, as statistically significant. Beside the CDR-SB, we have implemented also a cognitive test battery that is tailored to the mild dementia population, avoiding issues like ceiling and floor effects that were seen in attempts to repurpose cognitive assessment tools initially intended mainly for moderate dementia for milder AD populations (52-54). The battery is composed of tests with proven utility in mild AD, measuring processing speed, verbal immediate and delayed recall and recognition, as well as visual memory via computerised Cogstate tests, verbal fluency and executive function via the letter fluency and category fluency tests, and finally executive function and working memory via the digit-symbol coding test. This composite is expected to be especially sensitive to cognitive decline at the mild dementia stage.
Extensive MRI measures (volumetry, diffusion tensor imaging, and fMRI) in all subjects, as well as CSF biomarker assessments and FDG-PET evaluation of a subset of study subjects were implemented to detect interaction between AADvac1 treatment and the AD pathophysiological process.
The study is expected to conclude in summer 2019.

Phase 1 (nfvPPA)

Non-fluent primary progressive aphasia (nfvPPA) is characterised by impairment in grammar and motor speech (apraxia of speech and dysarthria), along with predominant atrophy of the left posterior frontal lobe and insula (55). This phenotypic manifestation of the underlying neuronal degeneration is caused, in a majority of nfvPPA cases, by tau pathology, morphologically similar to AD, CBD or PSP (56-58). Therefore, patients with this well defined tauopathy are well suited for treatment with the AADvac1 vaccine.
The ongoing study “AIDA” A 24-month randomised parallel group single-blinded multi-centre phase 1 pilot study of AADvac1 in patients with non fluent primary progressive aphasia (EudraCT 2017-000643-41, NCT 03174886) is primarily a safety and immunogenicity trial, comparing two dosage strengths of AADvac1 in patients with mild-to-moderate nfvPPA. Efficacy is evaluated in an exploratory fashion, though some markers, e.g., neurofilament light chain protein (59, 60), appear to be very sensitive indicators of disease severity in frontotemporal dementias, and are thus potentially theragnostic. The cognitive and functional assessment were tailored to the population under study, seeking to capture impairment in language, behaviour, cognition, and possibly motor function. We have implemented a language-focused custom cognitive test battery (61). Additionally, the Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination test (ACE-III) was chosen as an established scale that assesses multiple cognitive domains, and is well-targeted to the patient population. The FTLD version of the Clinical Dementia Rating (Sum of Boxes) is used as a functional assessment; in comparison to the version used in AD, it incorporates also the domains «Language» and  «Behaviour, comportment and personality» (62); everyday functioning assessed by the Amsterdam instrumental activities of living scale (63). Behavioural pathology is assessed in greater depth by the frontal systems behaviour scale (FrSBe). Finally, to assess the entire spectrum of symptoms, the UPDRS Part III is used to evaluate Parkinson-like motor symptoms that can occur with the progression of the disease.
The thorough coverage of potential manifestations of nfvPPA clinical symptoms will allow the selection of most suitable endpoints for later studies.



AADvac1 targets a functionally and structurally outstanding epitope in the microtubule-binding region of tau protein, present once in each of the microtubule-binding repeats. The peptide hapten component of AADvac1 forms a conformational neo-epitope, identical to that present on truncated tau precursors of pathological oligomerised tau. This neo-epitope constitutes a common denominator of all analysed pathological tau species and is present in all assessed AD and non-AD tauopathy brains.
Using truncated tau as found in sporadic AD, we have generated transgenic rats and mice that faithfully replicate human tau pathology. Targeting the abovementioned epitope via passive or active immunisation resulted in reduction of neurofibrillary pathology, and improvement of the neurobehavioural phenotype of both transgenic mice and rats.
Treatment with AADvac1 induced IgG antibodies in 29 of 30 treated AD patients. These antibodies were able to target tau pathology in AD brain tissue slides. The encouraging safety profile observed in the phase 1 study marks AADvac1 as suitable for long term treatment, or even preventive application in the future.
The ADAMANT phase 2 double-blind safety and efficacy study is expected to conclude in mid-2019.
Meanwhile, the development of AADvac1 in non-AD tauopathies has begun with the phase 1 «AIDA» study in nfvPPA patients; results after 1 year of treatment are expected in 2019.
Should AADvac1 prove efficacious, its nature as an active vaccine will naturally lend itself both to the treatment of manifest AD, but especially also to the prevention of dementia, i.e. prevention of the accumulation of pathological tau proteins at the asymptomatic or early symptomatic stages of AD, as described in the FDA’s guidance for early Alzheimer’s disease (draft issued 2018), and in cases with family history of tau pathology (MAPT gene mutation carriers), as well as in carriers of mutations in the amyloid pathway (64).


Conflict of interest: Authors affiliated with AXON Neuroscience or one of its subsidiaries are employees of these companies. The employer of Markus Otto, Univeristy of Ulm, is receiving payments from AXON Neuroscience for the conduct of clinical studies on a per-patient per-visit basis.

Ethical standards: All experiments on animals were carried out according to institutional animal care guidelines conforming to international standards and were approved by the State Veterinary and Food Committee of the Slovak Republic. All human clinical trials are conducted according to the Declaration of Helsinki, and the ICH guidance on good clinical practice. All studies were approved by the responsible ethics committees and competent regulatory authorities. All patients have provided informed consent, and agreed to the publication of trial data.



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T. West1, Y. Hu1, P.B. Verghese1, R.J. Bateman2, J.B. Braunstein1, I. Fogelman1, K. Budur3, H. Florian3, N. Mendonca4, D.M. Holtzman2


1. C2N Diagnostics LLC, Saint Louis, MO, USA; 2. Washington University, St. Louis, MO, USA; 3. AbbVie Inc., North Chicago, IL, USA; 4. AbbVie Deutschland GmbH & Co. KG, Ludwigshafen, Germany

Corresponding Author: Tim West, PhD, C2N Diagnostics, 20 S Sarah St, Saint Louis, MO 63108, Email:

J Prev Alz Dis 2017;4(4):236-241
Published online September 27, 2017,



Tau neurofibrillary tangles are found in the brains of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other tauopathies. The progressive spreading of tau pathology from one brain region to the next is believed to be caused by extracellular transsynaptic transmission of misfolded tau between neurons. Preclinical studies have shown that antibodies against tau can prevent this transfer of misfolded tau between cells. Thus, antibodies against tau have the potential to stop or slow the progression of tau pathology observed in human tauopathies. To test this hypothesis, a humanized anti-tau antibody (ABBV-8E12) was developed and a phase 1 clinical trial of this antibody has been completed. The double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 1 study tested single doses of ABBV-8E12 ranging from 2.5 to 50 mg/kg in 30 patients with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). ABBV-8E12 was found to have an acceptable safety profile with no clinically concerning trends in the number or severity of adverse events between the placebo and dosed groups. Pharmacokinetic modelling showed that the antibody has a plasma half-life and cerebrospinal fluid:plasma ratio consistent with other humanized antibodies, and there were no signs of immunogenicity against ABBV-8E12. Based on the acceptable safety and tolerability profile of single doses of ABBV-8E12, AbbVie is currently enrolling patients into two phase 2 clinical trials to assess efficacy and safety of multiple doses of ABBV-8E12 in patients with early Alzheimer’s disease or PSP.

Key words: Tau, immunotherapy, Alzheimer’s disease, tauopathy, therapeutic.



Tauopathies refer to a set of neurodegenerative disorders characterized by the pathological aggregation of microtubule-associated protein tau (MAPT) in neurons and glial cells in the human brain. The most common tauopathy is Alzheimer’s disease (AD), estimated to affect more than 5 million Americans and 46 million people worldwide. Less common tauopathies include progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), cortical basal degeneration (CBD), Pick’s disease and frontotemporal dementia with parkinsonism linked to chromosome 17, with the total number of tauopathies being greater than 20 (1). In some of these tauopathies (such as PSP, CBD, and Pick’s), aggregation of tau in the brain is the predominant form of brain pathology, while for other diseases (such as AD and Niemann Pick type C) other brain pathologies are involved in the disease alongside tau.
The human tau gene contains 16 exons and alternative spicing of exons 2, 3 and 10 results in six different tau protein isoform (2). Based on the number of inserts near the amino-terminal and the carboxy-terminal repeat domains, the isoforms are referred to as 0N3R, 1N3R, 2N3R, 0N4R, 1N4R and 2N4R. Under normal conditions, tau is predominantly localized within neurons and more specifically axons, although non-neuronal cells can have trace amounts (3). Tau was originally identified as a microtubule-associated protein that functions to promote assembly of microtubule protein subunit tubulin into microtubules and stabilize their structure (4). More recently, novel functions of tau have been discovered, such as iron transport, neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity and neuronal DNA protection (5).
Data from biochemical and animal studies of the tau protein suggest a working model that can serve as a basic framework for studying the pathophysiological functions of tau as well as for developing tau therapeutics. Tauopathy pathogenesis includes molecular events such as hyperphosphorylation and aggregation of tau. Hyperphosphorylation of tau can reduce its binding to microtubules, and thereby cause microtubule disassembly and axonal transport impairment and eventually synaptic dysfunction (6, 7). Hyperphosphorylation, as well as some other modifications of tau (such as truncation and O-glcNAcylation) also promote tau aggregation (5).
Aggregated tau can assume the form of either soluble oligomers, insoluble paired helical filaments (PHFs), or insoluble straight filaments. PHFs manifest as neurofibrillary tangles (NFT) in the brain and are one of the major histopathological hallmarks of tauopathies. While NFTs were originally assumed to be toxic and the main cause of neurodegeneration, growing evidence suggests that NFT are neither necessary nor sufficient to cause neurodegeneration (8–10).
Recent evidence suggests that of the various aggregated tau species, tau oligomers can be toxic to neurons (11–15) and that release of tau oligomers from neurons can lead to transmission of tau pathology between cells. The tau oligomers are taken up by synaptically connected neurons, causing the normal tau in the recipient neuron to aggregate – thus resulting in spreading of tau pathology from one neuron to the next through neuronal connectivity. Calvaguera et al. found that intracerebral injection of brain extract from mice with filamentous tau pathology induces the formation and spreading of aggregates made of hyperphosphorylated tau in mice expressing human wild-type tau (16). Subsequently, more studies have reported similar findings in vivo, confirming this “prion-like” property of pathological tau species isolated from human tissue or transgenic mice (17–21). This mode of transcellular propagation suggests that extracellular transfer of tau between cells may be a susceptible target for antibody-mediated therapies. In support of this hypothesis, tau immunotherapy has emerged as a promising therapeutic strategy for tauopathies and this approach has been shown to reduce tau pathology and improve behavioral deficits in animal models (22–27).


Preclinical data

The laboratory of Dr. Holtzman at Washington University School of Medicine generated a library of anti-human tau antibodies to test the hypothesis that propagation of aggregated tau between cells can be prevented by using anti-tau antibodies and to further assess the mechanisms of action of such antibodies (28). The library originated from mice immunized with full-length human tau protein (2N4R) and antibodies recognizing various epitopes of human tau were identified. Using an in vitro cell based assay, the anti-tau antibodies were found to specifically and dose dependently block uptake of misfolded tau from brain lysates into neuronal cells (19, 28).
To assess the in vivo activity of the antibodies, three of the anti-tau antibodies and one control antibody were administered intracerebroventricularly (ICV) into P301S tau transgenic mice. The P301S transgenic mouse carries a mutated human tau gene that causes early onset frontotemporal dementia in humans. These mice develop brain tau pathology as evidenced by presence of NFTs and phosphorylated tau as well as behavioral deficits consistent with human tau pathology (29). Antibodies were infused continuously starting just after the time when tau pathology starts to develop in these mice (6 months of age). At nine months, associative learning was assessed and the brains of the animals were assessed for a variety of histological and biochemical measures. Of the three antibodies tested in vivo, one antibody (HJ8.5) demonstrated a consistent effect on all of the outcome measures as compared to the control antibody. This antibody showed a reduction in phosphorylated tau by both biochemical and histopathological measures, and an improvement in associative learning (28).

In addition to evaluating central delivery of the antibody, the biological effects of administering HJ8.5 peripherally were assessed in a separate study. Here, six-month old P301S mice received weekly intraperitoneal (IP) doses of PBS, or 10 or 50 mg/kg of HJ8.5 for three months (30). After three months of treatment, there was a significant reduction of tau pathology in the hippocampus in both the 10 mg/kg and 50 mg/kg dose group compared with control (Figure 1A and B). This reduction in tau pathology was matched by a reduction in the formic acid insoluble tau measured in the cortex of P310S mice in the 50 mg/kg dose group (Figure 1C). Peripheral HJ8.5 administration also improved sensorimotor function in these mice as measured by inverted screen and ledge tests. Importantly, peripheral antibody administration significantly attenuated brain volume loss observed in P301S mice over the three-month timeframe. This finding is significant since brain atrophy in human tauopathies associates strongly with tau accumulation in the brain regions affected, and thus it appears that the reduction in tau pathology by the antibody treatment results in protection against brain atrophy.

Figure 1. Anti-tau antibody decreased phospho-tau staining in the hippocampal CA1 cell layer

Figure 1. Anti-tau antibody decreased phospho-tau staining in the hippocampal CA1 cell layer


(A) Representative coronal sections of biotinylated AT8 antibody staining of phosphorylated tau in the hippocampal CA1 cellular region of 9-month-old P301S mice treated for three months with vehicle and HJ8.5 at 50 mg/kg. The lower images are higher power views of the CA1 region in the uppers panels. Red arrows indicate the area magnified in the lower image. Black arrows indicate the hippocampal CA1 cell layer. (B) Quantification of biotinylated AT8 antibody staining of abnormally phosphorylated tau revealed a significant decrease in AT8 staining in mice treated with HJ8.5 at 50 mg/kg in the hippocampal CA1 cellular layer compared to vehicle-treated mice (P = 0.035). Values represent mean ± SEM. (C) Levels of formic acid soluble tau determined by ELISA. HJ8.5 treatment at 50 mg/kg significantly decreased insoluble human tau (P < 0.0001) compared to vehicle-treated mice. Values represent mean ± SEM. ****P < 0.0001. Figure is modified from (30) with permission.


At the end of the peripheral dosing study, the concentration of tau in the plasma of P310S mice was measured using a tau ELISA. The concentration of tau in plasma was significantly increased in P310S animals that had been injected with HJ8.5, and the increase was higher in the animals that received the higher dose of HJ8.5 (30). Further studies indicated that the antibody dependent increase of plasma tau resulted primarily from CNS derived tau and that plasma tau concentrations appeared to reflect soluble, extracellular tau in the brain (31).
Recent studies utilized adenoassociated virus (AAV) to express single chain fragment variable domains (scFv) derived from HJ8.5 directly in the brain of P301S transgenic mice (32). This treatment also decreased tau pathology, demonstrating that the Fc domain of the antibody is not required for a therapeutic effect.
In summary, these preclinical studies show that anti-tau antibodies have the potential to engage tau present in the brain’s extracellular space as well as in plasma. Administration of the anti-tau antibody HJ8.5 in these animal models via central (ICV) and peripheral (IP) routes markedly reduced tau pathology, neuronal loss, and brain atrophy, resulting in cognitive and sensorimotor preservation compared to control treated mice.


Clinical data

Based on the promising results from the transgenic mouse model studies, a variety of humanized anti-tau antibodies were generated to test the hypothesis that anti-tau antibodies can provide therapeutic benefits in human tauopathies. Following requisite cell line development and toxicology testing, clinical trials with the lead compound (C2N-8E12, now known as ABBV-8E12) were initiated during the summer of 2015. A phase 1 clinical trial (NCT02494024) was designed to test the safety and tolerability of a single dose of ABBV-8E12 in patients with PSP. Key inclusion and exclusion criteria for this study are listed in Table 1. Subjects were randomized in blocks of four in a double-blind manner to receive a single intravenous dose of ABBV-8E12 or placebo in a three to one ratio (drug:placebo). Using a continual reassessment method that pre-specified algorithms for dose escalation, each block of subjects was assigned to one of the five dose cohorts (2.5, 7.5, 15, 25, and 50 mg/kg) tested in the study. Dose escalation was implemented only after available safety data from lower doses had been reviewed by the data safety monitoring committee (DSMC). Safety was monitored for 84 days post-dosing and included AEs, laboratory analyses, MRI assessments, ECG evaluations, physical/neurological examinations, vital signs, mental health assessments and a brain MRI at two weeks after dosing.

Table 1. Key inclusion and exclusion criteria for the phase 1 clinical trial (NCT02494024)

Table 1. Key inclusion and exclusion criteria for the phase 1 clinical trial (NCT02494024)


A total of 38 subjects were screened for the phase 1 trial, with 30 subjects enrolling. Of the enrolled subjects, 7 were assigned to the placebo arm and 23 were assigned to one of the 5 dose arms (Table 2).The safety profile at all doses supported dose escalation to the maximum dose (50 mg/kg), which was administered to 10 subjects. Twenty-seven subjects completed the 84-day follow-up and one subject withdrew from the study due to an adverse event (AE). AEs occurred in 21 of the 30 (70%) study participants. Table 3 provides an overview of the AEs observed in the study. The majority of the AEs were rated by the blinded investigators as mild or moderate in severity. Only two AEs were rated as severe – one case of headache and one case of agitation. Treatment-relatedness of the AEs was also rated by the investigators, with the majority of the AEs being rated as unrelated to treatment.

Table 2. Patient demographics and disease characteristics at screening

Table 2. Patient demographics and disease characteristics at screening


Table 3. Adverse event summary

Table 3. Adverse event summary

Events are listed by MedDRA preferred term. Number of patients experiencing an event is shown in the table with the percent incidence in parentheses.


There were no clinically concerning trends observed in the number or severity of AEs between the placebo and ABBV-8E12 dose groups. Nearly half (44%) of the observed AEs resolved within the first two days of onset and 77% of AEs resolved within the first two weeks. At the day 14 MRI, no clinically significant radiographic abnormal findings were observed. Three serious adverse events (SAEs) were reported during the study. One subject, in the 15 mg/kg dose group, with a history of experiencing several falls at baseline, had subdural hematoma. One subject, in the 25 mg/kg dose group, with a history of anxiety and agitation around stressful events including medical procedures, reported an increase in anxiety, agitation and perseverative behaviors. One subject, in the 50 mg/kg dose group, with a history of hypertension had hypertensive cerebrovascular disease. These events did not indicate an emerging safety issue. Thus, ABBV-8E12, when administered in single doses of up to 50 mg/kg, appears to have an acceptable safety and tolerability profile.
While assessment of single-dose safety and tolerability were the primary objectives of this phase 1 study, both plasma and CSF samples were acquired for assessment of pharmacokinetics (PK) of ABBV-8E12 in plasma and penetration of drug into the brain. Figure 2 shows the average PK profiles for ABBV-8E12 in plasma for each dose cohort. Across the dose range of 2.5 mg/kg to 50 mg/kg IV, the ABBV-8E12 area under the curve (AUC) increased in a dose-proportional manner. The harmonic mean plasma half-life ranged from approximately 27 days to 37 days. This plasma half-life is consistent with what has been reported for other monoclonal antibodies.

Figure 2. Pharmacokinetic profiles of ABBV-8E12 in plasma. Plasma samples were collected for up to 84 days post dosing and drug concentrations measured using a validated PK assay

Figure 2. Pharmacokinetic profiles of ABBV-8E12 in plasma. Plasma samples were collected for up to 84 days post dosing and drug concentrations measured using a validated PK assay

Data shown as mean with error bars representing the standard deviation.


Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) was sampled at screening and 14 days after drug administration. Measurement of ABBV-8E12 in CSF on day 14 revealed that CSF ABBV-8E12 concentrations increased with dose. Comparison of CSF concentrations to plasma concentrations of ABBV-8E12 on the same day showed that the CSF/plasma ratio ranged from 0.181% to 0.385%, consistent with what has been observed in other studies of monoclonal antibodies. Plasma samples collected out to day 84 were also assayed for the presence of anti-ABBV-8E12 antibodies using a validated anti-drug antibody assay. No anti-drug antibodies were detected in the post-dose plasma samples analyzed.


Future development plan/discussion

Based on the acceptable safety and tolerability profile of single doses up to 50 mg/kg in PSP patients, AbbVie is currently enrolling patients into two phase 2 clinical trials that assess the efficacy and safety of multiple doses of ABBV-8E12 in patients with early AD or PSP. In these studies, patients will be dosed for 96 weeks (early AD) or 52 weeks (PSP). The first cohort of 48 and 30 subjects each, in AD and PSP studies respectively, will undergo intensive safety monitoring.
The phase 2 AD study is a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial designed to evaluate the efficacy and safety of ABBV-8E12 in patients with early AD. For the purposes of this study, early AD is defined as a score of 22 or higher on the mini-mental state examination, a global score of 0.5 on clinical dementia rating, a score of 85 or lower on the Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status (RBANS)-delayed memory index, and a positive amyloid positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
The phase 2 AD study consists of a screening period of up to 8 weeks, a 96 week double-blind treatment period and a follow-up period of approximately 20 weeks following the last study drug administration. Approximately 400 subjects will be enrolled to meet the study objectives. Eligible subjects are between 55 to 85 years of age and have early AD in the absence of concurrent diseases that could confound safety or efficacy evaluations. Study participants are allowed to use concomitant medications to treat symptoms related to AD, if they are on a stable dose for at least 12 weeks prior to randomization. Upon completion of screening and baseline procedures, eligible subjects are randomized to one of the 3 ABBV-8E12 dose arms (low, medium and high dose) or placebo. Doses are administered every 4 weeks via IV infusion.
The primary efficacy measure for the AD study is the Clinical Dementia Rating scale – Sum of Boxes (CDR-SB). Secondary efficacy and exploratory outcomes include a variety of clinical measures, biologic markers, and neuroimaging measures. Safety will be monitored by adverse event reports, physical examination, laboratory tests, and imaging.
The phase 2 PSP study is a multiple dose, multicenter, multinational, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial designed to evaluate the efficacy and safety of ABBV-8E12 in patients with PSP. Eligible subjects are randomized to one of the two ABBV-8E12 dose arms (low and high dose) or placebo and ABBV-8E12 is administered every 4 weeks via IV infusion for a total of a 52-week treatment period. The study starts with a screening period of up to 8 weeks and ends with a follow-up period of approximately 20 weeks following the last study drug administration. Approximately 180 subjects will be enrolled to meet the study objectives. Eligible subjects are 40 years of age or older and meet PSP clinical criteria in the absence of concurrent diseases that could confound safety or efficacy evaluations. Study participants are required to have PSP symptoms for less than 5 years and to be able to walk 5 steps with minimal assistance.
The primary efficacy measure of this PSP phase 2 study is the PSP Rating Scale (PSPRS) (33). Secondary efficacy measures include a variety of biologic markers and clinical and neuroimaging outcome measures. Safety is assessed by adverse event reports, physical examination, laboratory tests and imaging.


Funding: This work was funded by C2N Diagnostics and AbbVie Inc., and supported by a grant from the Alzheimer’s Association (PCTR-15-330406) made possible by Part the Cloud™.

Acknowledgements: The team at C2N Diagnostics and AbbVie Inc. would like to sincerely thank the clinical investigators and the patients in the phase 1 clinical study for all their hard work and dedication to this clinical trial.

Conflict of interest: TW, IHH, PBV, and IF are full time employees and/or advisors of C2N Diagnostics, receiving stock and/or stock options. RJB is a co-founder of C2N Diagnostics. RJB and Washington University in St. Louis have equity ownership interest in C2N Diagnostics and may receive royalty income based on technology licensed by Washington University to C2N Diagnostics. RJB receives lab research funding from the Tau SILK Consortium (AbbVie, Biogen, and Eli Lilly and Co.), Eli Lilly and Co, Hoffman La-Roche, Janssen, Avid Radiopharmaceuticals, and the DIAN Pharma Consortium (Abbvie, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Biogen, Eisai, Eli Lilly and Co, Hoffman La-Roche, Janssen, Pfizer, and Sanofi). RJB has received honoraria from Janssen and Pfizer as a speaker and from Merck and Pfizer as an Advisory Board member. In addition, RJB receives income from C2N Diagnostics for serving on the Scientific Advisory Board. JBB is a co-founder and employee of C2N Diagnostics, receiving stock and/or stock options. KB, HF, and NM are employees of AbbVie, receiving stock and/or stock options. DMH co-founded and is on the scientific advisory board of C2N Diagnostics. DMH is an inventor on a submitted patent “Antibodies to Tau”, PCT/US2013/049333, that is licensed by Washington University to C2N Diagnostics. This patent was subsequently licensed to AbbVie. DMH receives research grants from the C2N Diagnostics, AbbVie, Eli Lilly, and Denali. DMH consults for Genentech, AbbVie, Eli Lilly, Proclara Biosciences, Glaxosmithkline, and Denali.



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M. Guéroux1, C. Fleau1, M. Slozeck1, M. Laguerre2, I. Pianet1,3


1. Institut des Sciences Moléculaires, CNRS, Université de Bordeaux, 351 cours de la Libération 33405 Talence, France; 2. Chimie et Biologie des Membranes et Nanoobjets, CNRS, Université de Bordeaux, 1 allée Geoffroy St Hilaire, Pessac, France; 3. Institut de Recherche sur les Archéomatériaux, CNRS, Université de Bordeaux-Montaigne, Esplanade des Antilles, Pessac, France.

Corresponding Author: Isabelle Pianet, Institut de Recherche sur les Archéomatériaux, CNRS, Université Bordeaux-Montaigne, Esplanade des Antilles 33600 Pessac,; tel: (+33)557126755; fax:  (+33)557124550

J Prev Alz Dis 2017;4(4):218-225
Published online September 27, 2017,



Polyphenols such as Epigallocatechin-3 gallate (EGCG) are currently bearer of hope to prevent or at least to slow down the deleterious effect of Tauopathies such as Alzheimer disease. One of the main effects of these neurodegenerative pathologies is the hyperphosphorylation and consequent aggregation of the Tau protein that leads to the irremediable neuronal cells death. In the present paper, we show how EGCG can play a crucial role to prevent Tau aggregation: (i) in binding Tau in its phosphorylation region with an affinity of the same order of magnitude than kinases (0.5 mM), hindering their access to the protein and (ii) in modifying the 3D-structure of Tau whose preferential conformation changes in the presence of EGCG. For this purpose, two peptides were synthesized, one of 20 residues long issued from the first Proline-rich region of Tau (171Ile-190Lys), the second of 50 residues long (171Ile-220Thr) corresponding to more than 50% of the Tau Proline rich domaine. The total attribution of all the 1H, 13C and 15N resonances of the two peptides has been achieved thanks to a “divide and conquer” strategy leading to their 3D structure preference and their affinity towards EGCG.

Key words:  Tau, EGCG, interactions, NMR, molecular modeling.

Abbreviations: AD: Alzheimer’s disease; B3: (+) catechin 4α-8 (+) catechin; Catechin: (+)-Cyanidol-3, (2R,3S)-2-(3,4-Dihydroxyphenyl)-3,4-dihydro-1(2H)-benzopyran-3,5,7-triol; DOSY : Diffusion Ordered Spectroscopy; EGCG : (-) epigallocatechin gallate (−)-cis-2-(3,4,5-Trihydroxyphenyl)-3,4-dihydro-1(2H)-benzopyran-3,5,7-triol 3-gallate, (−)-cis-3,3′,4′,5,5′,7-Hexahydroxy-flavane-3-gallate; NOESY: Nuclear Overhauser Effect Spectroscopy; STD: Saturation Transfer Difference; TOCSY: Total Correlation Spectroscopy.



Polyphenols, which are secondary metabolites widespread in plants, have interested physicians and pharmacists since the beginning of the millennium. Epigallocatechin 3-gallate (EGCG, Scheme 1A), found in high quantites in green tea (around 20% of the leaves dry weight) is one of the most popular in terms of health promotion (1) and is currently under clinical trials for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (phases 2 and 3 (2)). These clinical trials follow the numerous publications dealing with tauopathies and polyphenols, and the numerous explanations leading to the understanding of their beneficial effects. Key parameters are the antioxidant potential of these compounds (3, 4), their ability to chelate metals (5, 6), reduce β-amyloid fibrillation (7) and Tau aberrant aggregation (8-10). Inhibition of Tau hyperphosphorylation and aggregation is one of the most promising new potential therapeutics (11, 12) and most of the previous work highlights polyphenols in general, and EGCG in particular, as good candidates to play this role.

Scheme 1. A. Chemical structures of polyphenols used for titrations. EGCG (left), and B3 (right). B. Schematic representation of Tau (Top) and amino acid of the longest isoform of Tau 2N4R (bottom). E1: acidic region, PRR: Proline-Rich Region, R: Repeat Region. The PR1 peptide is underlined in green and the PR1PR2 peptide in purple

Scheme 1. A. Chemical structures of polyphenols used for titrations. EGCG (left), and B3 (right). B. Schematic representation of Tau (Top) and amino acid of the longest isoform of Tau 2N4R (bottom). E1: acidic region, PRR: Proline-Rich Region, R: Repeat Region. The PR1 peptide is underlined in green and the PR1PR2 peptide in purple

These observations are the starting point of our work, which brings a molecular and atomistic interpretation of the role that EGCG might play to fight tauopathies such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). For this purpose, we started working on two synthesized peptides issued from the Proline-rich Domaine of the Tau protein (2N4R isoform, 441 residues, Scheme 1B). We target this domain because most of the phosphosphorylations at the origin of the aberrant aggregation of Tau takes place in the Proline-rich region of Tau: there are 85 putative phosphorylation sites, 45 of which are phosphorylated vs 9 for diseased and healthy neurons, respectively (13). Most of the phos-phorylation sites are located on Serine and/or Threonine residues, particularly on Ser-Pro and Thr-Pro motives (13), while 20 of the 45 phosphorylation sites listed for diseased neurons are located in the Proline Rich Regions.
The two model peptides used in this study correspond to the 171Ile-190Lys (PR1, underlined in green, Scheme 1B) and 171Ile-220Thr (PR1PR2, underlined in purple, Scheme 1B). This choice was guided by the level of proline residues and Ser/Thr-Pro motifs. Moreover, previous studies were performed on the 201Gly-220Thr fragment (14, 15) (PR2) whose previous total NMR resonance assignment permits attribution and defines the conformational preference of the longest peptide PR1PR2 using the “divide and conquer” strategy. The choice of EGCG and the catechin dimer B3 comes from these previous studies in which we demonstrated its higher affinity towards PR2 compared to other procyanidins (15). The binding of EGCG and B3 on PR1 and PR1PR2 has been characterized by using different NMR techniques (chemical shift variations via 1D 1H and 2D NMR, variation of the Diffusion coefficient of the peptides using DOSY, EGCG epitope-mapping using STD), and molecular modeling.


Experimental section

Peptides and procyanidins synthesis and purification

Unlabelled PR1 and PR1PR2 were synthesized by Genecust (Luxembourg) and purified by HPLC (Water 2487 dual wavelength absorbance detector) using a Nova Pak C18 column. Purity was controlled by ESI mass spectrometry. EGCG was provided by Sigma Aldrich (purity >95%) and  B3 ((+)-catechin 4α (+)-catechin) was synthesized and purified using a strategy previously described (16).

Sample preparation

For the structure determination, a 4 mM solution of peptides PR1/ PR1PR2 was prepared in a H2O/D2O 80/20, v/v solution or with neat D2O (to record 1H-13C HSQC experiment and for proline assignments). Samples were buffered with 10 mM of KH2PO4 to obtain a pH between 6 and 6.2. For titration experiments procyanidins are progressively added to a 0.5 or 1 mM of peptide in a KH2PO4 buffer, pH 6.2, dissolved in H2O/D2O: 90/10, v/v to scan a final concentration ranging from 1 to 12 mM. In order to keep the peptide concentration constant, tannins were added as a lyophilized powder. The pH (or pD) value of the solution was controlled at the end of the titration and remains constant.

Acquisition of NMR Spectra

For peptides 3D structure, regular 1D and 2D spectra were recorded at 293 K on a Bruker Avance III 600 (PR1) spectrometer equipped with a 5mm gradient inverse broadband probe with 2H lock (CESAMO facility) and a Bruker Avance III 800 (PR1PR2, IECB facility) equipped with a 5 mm cryoprobe TCI (1H/13C/15N/2H) with Z-gradient. In all experiments, water suppression was done using a watergate sequence. The following parameters were used: for TOCSY NMR experiments, spectral width, 7692 Hz in both dimensions; time domain data points, 2048; t1 increments, 256; relaxation delay, 2 s; 16 scans per t1 increment; spinlock, 100 ms; NOESY spectra were recorded with a 7164 Hz spectral width, a 4096 time domain data points, and 512 t1 increments, a mixing time of 300 ms, a 2 s relaxation delay and 64 scans per t1 increment ; The 1H-13C HSQC experiment was acquired using a spectral width of 6010 Hz in the 1H dimension and 20000 Hz in the 13C dimension, a 4096 time domain data points, 256 t1 increments, a 2 s relaxation delay, and 16 scans per t1 increment. 1H- 15N HSQC was acquired using a spectral width of 10000 Hz in the 1H dimension and 3250 Hz in the 15N dimension, a 2048 time domain data points, 256 t1 increments, a 2 s relaxation delay, and 16 scans per t1 increment. All data processing was performed using the Topspin software version 3.1 (Bruker).
For titration experiments, 1D proton, TOCSY and DOSY spectra were recorded for each EGCG or B3 (for PR1 only), using the following parameters: for TOCSY, spectral width, 7200 Hz in both dimensions; time domain data points, 1024; t1 increments, 128; relaxation delay, 2 s; 16 scans per t1 increment; spinlock, 100ms; for diffusion measurement we used a stimulated echo with bipolar gradient pulses sequence, with the following parameters: spectral width, 7000 Hz, scan number, 138; recycling delay, 2s; intergradient delay Δ, 150ms; gradient pulse duration δ, 1.5 ms (corresponding to a δ value of 2ms). The pulse gradients (G) were incremented from 2 to 95% of the maximum gradient strength in a linear ramp in 16 steps. The diffusion coefficient, D can be obtained by fitting a specific resonance area, I, obtained at different gradient powers (G) using the Bruker Topspin 2.1 software.
The diffusion constant of water (2.3×10-9 m2/s at 298K) was used to calibrate the instrument.
STD NMR experiments were recorded for PR1PR2 (0.5 mM) with EGCG (4 mM) with 256 scans. Selective saturations of protein on resonance at -0.5 ppm and off resonance at 35 ppm were performed using a 1D sequence for saturation transfer difference, with shaped pulse train for saturation alternating between on and off resonance, and with spoil sequence to destroy unwanted magnetization. STD NMR spectra were acquired at 298 K using a series of 40 equally spaced 50-ms gaussian-shaped pulses for selective saturation, with a 1s delay between pulses, which corresponds to a total saturation time of 2 s. A Watergate sequence was used to suppress the residual HDO signal and a spin-lock filter, with a 5 kHz strength and 10 ms duration, was applied to suppress protein back-ground. To ensure the specificity of STDs eliciting resonances, another STD NMR experiment was recorded by adding to the sample a capillary with 1 mM glucose solution.

NMR Data Analysis

For titration experiments, chemical shifts variations of some protons or Diffusion coefficient of peptides were analyzed using equation 2 (17):
Aobs = 1/2Amax(1 + Kd/n*P0) + Ti)/n*P0)) – {(1+ Kd/n*P0) + Ti)/n*P0))2 -4Ti)/n*P0)}1/2)
Where Aobs is Δδi, the chemical shift variation (ppm) or ΔDobs, the diffusion coefficient variation, Amax is Δδmax (or ΔDmax), the chemical shift (diffusion D) difference between the chemical shift (or D) of the peptide alone and saturated with tannins, Kd is the dissociation constant expressed in mM, Ti, the total concentration of polyphenol able to fix the peptide in mM, P0), the total concentration of peptide in mM, and n the number of polyphenols binding sites. Kd, n, and Δδmax or ΔDmax were calculated using a least-squares-fitting routine within the software program Microsoft EXCEL.

Molecular Modeling and Dynamics

Molecular modeling calculations were performed according to a previously published procedure on a Linux workstation running MacroModel version 6.5 (Schrodinger Inc.) (18). Conformational minima were found using the modified AMBER* (1991 parameters) force field as implemented and completed in the MacroModel program. Built structures were minimized to a final RMSD gradient <0.005 kJ.Ǻ-1.mol-1 via the truncated Newton conjugate gradient (TNCG) method (1000 cycles). Calculations were performed using distance constraints according to the NOE correlation intensities: strong, 2.2±0.4Å; medium, 3.5±0.9 Å; and weak, 5.0±0.5Å. After full minimization, the 20 lowest energy conformers were selected. Molecular dynamics calculations were performed using GROMACS 4.0 and theGROMOS96 force field (19). The EGCG molecule was parameterized using the Dundee PRODRG2 server website version 2.5 (http:// davapc1. bioch. /prodrg/). The peptide PR1 and 4 EGCG were set randomly in a simple point charge (SPC) cubic water box with dimensions (100:100:100) Å. PR1 was neutralized without any salt added. Molecular dynamics (MD) runs were performed at constant temperature (300 K, time constant for coupling, 0.1 ps) and pressure (1 bar) with a Berendsen coupling as previously described (20). Calculation of amphiphilic surfaces was obtained as described in Simon, et al.(18).



1H, 13C and 15N assignments, and 3D structure of Peptides

The efficient “divide and conquer” strategy was employed to complete the 1H, 13C and 15N assignments of the naturally unfolded peptide PR1PR2 (171Ile-220Thr) representative of the Proline Rich Region of Tau, consisting of using splicing information extracted from spectra of smaller fragments. For this purpose, the total assignment of the shorter peptide PR2 (201Gly-220Thr) was already performed (15), and another peptide PR1 corresponding to the 171Ile-190Lys region is presented herein. The NMR characterization of PR1 was achieved using the Wüthrich strategy (21). TOCSY informs about the resonance pattern of each residue. The NH-Hα region shows the presence of three Lysines (K130, K174 and K190), two Alanines (A173, A178), two Serines (S184, S185) two Threonines (T175, T181), one Glycine (G186) and one Glutamic acid (E187). The assignment of the eight Prolines was completed with TOCSY experiments specifically recorded in D2O in order to decrease the residual water signal which partly hides their Hα resonances. Three set of signals were distinguishable: the resonances centered at 4.63 ppm is assigned to the Hα of prolines 176, 182 and 188 because this chemical shift value is specific of a proline Hα when followed by another proline (22). The second set of signals corresponding to Hα resonating at 4.4 ppm and can be assigned to P172 and P179, while the third set of signals resonating at 4.38 ppm can be as-signed to the three prolines preceding another proline: P177, 183 and 188.
The sequential assignment was achieved by NOESY and permitted the assignment of all the 1H resonances, and consequently, the attribution of 13C and 15N resonances thanks to 1H-13C and 1H-15N HSQC, respec-tively.
From these NMR data, the expected 11 3J Hα-NH and only 17 NOEs classified with respect to their intensity and exclusively corresponding to (i : i+1) contacts were collected. These data served as constraint files to minimize the 3D structure of this proline-rich region of Tau. As expected by the sharp NH and CHα resonances of this peptide, the level of splicing and the lack of inter-residues NOEs, the result of molecular minimization con-verges to an unfolded model (figure 1).

Figure 1. The 10 best conformations of PR1 obtained from molecular dynamics under NMR constraints. The red bold trace represents the lowest energy conformation

Figure 1. The 10 best conformations of PR1 obtained from molecular dynamics under NMR constraints. The red bold trace represents the lowest energy conformation

The NMR characterization of PR1PR2 may be achieved despite the severe resonance overlapping through the superposition of the TOCSY/NOESY spectrum of PR1PR2, PR1 and PR2. Figure 2a displays the superposed NH-Hα region of PR1PR2 with PR1 and PR2. Except for the NH resonance of Lys 190 (K190) and Thr 220 (T220), which are shifted in PR1 and PR2 with respect to PR1PR2, due to their C terminal position, a high level of resonances superposition is observed between the three different peptides. Concerning the attribution of the 15 prolines, the same method was used. Figure 2b displays the TOCSY spectrum of PR1PR2, especially the region where all the prolines resonances are, with the superposition of PR1 and PR2:  the high level of resonances superposition also permits the assignment of three distinct groups of prolines depending on their vicinity. Using this strategy, the assignment of the remaining ten residues (Ser 191 to Pro 200) was easily achieved. 1H-13C and 1H-15N HSQC were also acquired in order to assign all the 15N resonances corresponding to the NH backbone, and all the 13C except the quaternary carbons.

Figure 2. Left: Superposition of TOCSY spectra: NH-Hα region of PR1PR2 (black) PR1 (red) and PR2 (green). Spectra were recorded on a 4 mM peptide solution (H2O/D2O : 90/10; v/v, pH 6.2, KH2PO4). For clarity, the S and T Hβ were pointed instead of Hα. Right: Proton assignment of PR1PR2 prolines. Superimposition of TOCSY spectra (proline region) recorded on a 4 mM peptide solution (D2O; pD 6.6, KH2PO4)

Figure 2. Left: Superposition of TOCSY spectra: NH-Hα region of PR1PR2 (black) PR1 (red) and PR2 (green). Spectra were recorded on a 4 mM peptide solution (H2O/D2O : 90/10; v/v, pH 6.2, KH2PO4). For clarity, the S and T Hβ were pointed instead of Hα. Right: Proton assignment of PR1PR2 prolines. Superimposition of TOCSY spectra (proline region) recorded on a 4 mM peptide solution (D2O; pD 6.6, KH2PO4)

From these NMR data, 23 3J Hα-NH of the 35 expected were obtained and 34 NOEs were classified with respect to their intensity and corresponding exclusively to (i – i+1) contacts. These data combined with the sharp NH and CHα resonances of this peptide, the level of splicing between the two fragments and the 50 residues peptide PR1PR2, and the lack of inter-residue NOEs that converge to an unfolded model as previously reported on the proline rich domains of Tau protein (23-27), were not used to obtain a time-consuming and expected unfolded structure.

Interactions with Procyanidins

Procyanidins- peptides interactions have been viewed on both sides through two types of titration experiments: for PR1 and PR1PR2, the peptide chemical shift changes were followed by 1D, 2D, and the peptide translational diffusion changes using DOSY NMR; the procyanidins contact points were checked using STD NMR experi-ments on the longest peptide. Moreover, these different approaches give rise to the physicochemical quantities governing the interactions, notably the dissociation constant, Kd and the number of binding sites, n.
Titration experiments were performed on PR1 peptide with 2 different procyanidins: the galloylated monomer EGCG and the catechin dimer B3. The progressive addition of procyanidins showed significant chemical shift variations in two main regions of PR1 –Ala178 to Thr 181 and Ser185 to Lys190 hallmarking the recognition place of polyphenols on the peptide. Chemical shift variations through the titration experiments can be fitted using eq. 2, which describes the binding of polyphenols at multiple sites n on the peptide (Figure 3). The dissociation constant (Kd) and the number of binding sites (n) for each procyanidin were averaged from fitting of different chemical shift variations of the most responsive residues: Kd values were estimated at 1.1±0.1 and 2.0±0.3 mM, with a number of binding sites close to 2.1±0.3 and 2.6±0.4, for EGCG and B3, respectively. The relationship between Kd values and the chemical nature of polyphenols highlights the effect of the presence of a galloyl group upon affinity. Concerning the number of binding sites (n) it seems to be close to 2 whatever the polyphenol tested.

Figure 3. Chemical shift variations (Δδ) of PR1 (NH of 181T) with increasing EGCG (blue) and B3 (green). PR1 concentration was adjusted to 1 mM, and polyphenols were added to obtain the final concentration indicated on the x-axis. And chemical shift variations (Δδ) of PR1PR2 (NH of Thr212) with increasing [EGCG]

Figure 3. Chemical shift variations (Δδ) of PR1 (NH of 181T) with increasing EGCG (blue) and B3 (green). PR1 concentration was adjusted to 1 mM, and polyphenols were added to obtain the final concentration indicated on the x-axis. And chemical shift variations (Δδ) of PR1PR2 (NH of Thr212) with increasing [EGCG]

DOSY NMR experiments were recorded on PR1 peptide at various concentrations of B3. The D value evolves from 1.6×10-10m2.s-1 to 1.27×10-10 m2.s-1, above 4 mM of B3, confirming the association process and in accordance with the association of approximately 2 polyphenol molecules for 1 PRP1 peptide and a Kd around 2 mM: using the approximation of the Graham’s law (even if the relation should be more complex (28) depending on the spatial structure that the molecule adopts in a given solvent) for which the rate of diffusion coefficients, D, are inversely proportional to the square roots of their molecular weights,  a value of 2.3 molecules of B3 were bound to PR1).
In fine, molecular dynamics calculations were performed on a system composed of one peptide PR1 and 4 EGCG molecules, randomly disposed in a box of (100Å)3 full of water. All the calculations were run at least three times with different random seeds. The scenario observed is as follow: within the first 10 ns two different events appear, the formation of EGCG aggregates and the binding of EGCG to the peptide. At the end of the calcula-tion, a complex between the 4 EGCG (whose only three are directly fixed to the peptide), and PR1 was formed. The Ser184, Glu187 and Lys190 residues appear to be the most involved in the binding process:  in 80% of cases, EGCG plays the role of a hydrogen bond acceptor while the peptide is the hydrogen bond donor. This binding mostly takes place in the hydrophilic moiety of the peptide (in blue in Fig.4) between the carbonyl function of EGCG and the OH and/or NH3 groups of Ser184 and Lys190. However, a hydrophobic interaction is also observed, while less common, between the aromatic rings of polyphenols and the hydrophobic region of PR1 (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Molecular lipophilicity potential contours of PR1 (dark blue ribbon) and 3 EGCG. Left : Hydrophilic part of the peptide (in blue). Right: hydrophobic part of the peptide (in red) in which one polyphenol is positioned (dark blue). The interface between the lipo- and hydrophilic region of the peptide is represented by the cream isosurface

Figure 4. Molecular lipophilicity potential contours of PR1 (dark blue ribbon) and 3 EGCG. Left : Hydrophilic part of the peptide (in blue). Right: hydrophobic part of the peptide (in red) in which one polyphenol is positioned (dark blue). The interface between the lipo- and hydrophilic region of the peptide is represented by the cream isosurface

For the PR1PR2 peptide, titration experiments were performed using the same strategy: EGCG was progressively added to a solution of 0.5 mM PR1PR2 to reach a final concentration kept below its CMC (between 0 and 5 mM). The progressive addition of EGCG induces 1H chemical shift variations mainly in two domains of PR1PR2, Ala178/Lys180/Thr181 and Gly207/Thr212 (S 11), which tag the PR1PR2 peptide binding sites. These binding sites were already observed for the two shortest peptides PR1 and PR2. Fitting chemical shift variations of the most responsive residues (mainly, Ala173/ Lys174/ Thr175/ Ala178/ Lys180/ Thr181/ Gly207/ Thr212/ Leu215 and Thr217) with Eq. 2 gives rise to the estimation of the dissociation constant, Kd (0.5±0.1 mM) and the number of fixation sites n (1.5±0.5) (Figure 3, orange). If the affinity of EGCG appears to be higher for the PR1PR2 peptide than for PR1, or PR2 (0.5 mM vs 1.1 mM and 0.9 mM, respectively (15)),the number of EGCG binding sites is quite low (1.5 vs 2.1 for PR1 and 3.1 for PR2).
The DOSY NMR spectra recorded at each EGCG concentration confirms the small amount of EGCG bond to PR1PR2, since no difference was observed between the peptide alone and the peptide with EGCG (close to 1.2±0.15×10-10 m2.s-1) : the difference between the two rates of diffusion between PR1PR2 and PR1PR2 + 1 EGCG is expected to 0.1×10-10 m2.s-1  i.e. within the error of the measurement.
Saturation Transfer Difference (STD) NMR technique was finally used to follow the interactions between EGCG and the PR1PR2 peptide. This technique commonly used for several years to identify binding events (29) by looking at the resonance signals of the ligand, EGCG in our case, permits to elucidate the epitope group of the ligand involved in the interaction. This NMR technique, applicable only on the longest peptide, associated with chemical-shift changes, gives rise to a complete picture of the interaction.
Figure 5 displays the different spectra recorded with this technique: in order to confirm the specificity of the binding, some tests were performed with the peptide and the polyphenol alone (Fig. 5, Spectra (a) and (c)) and their corresponding STD spectra (b) and (d) showing no resonance). Spectrum (g) shows the STD spectrum of a solution containing both EGCG and PR1PR2 in which mainly the resonances of the protons of the two galloyl groups of EGCG (H2’, H6’, H2”, H6”) and to a lesser extend those of the catechol ring (H6, H8) are elicited. A control test has been performed on the same solution in which 1 mM of glucose was added (spectrum (e) for the 1H spectrum of reference and (f) for the corresponding STD spectrum) confirming the specificity of the interaction of EGCG with PR1PR2 observed using STD. STD methods can be used to identify the part of the ligand in contact to the peptide (the nearest protons are more saturated when the saturation transfer occurs): in the present case, the higher level of transfer occurring on the protons of the galloyl groups suggests the involvement of the ester and/or the phenolic OH in the binding with PR1PR2.

Figure 5. STD spectra of a mixture of 0.5mM PR1PR2 and 3 mM EGCG in H2O/D2O at pH 6.2, and chemical structures of EGCG. (a) 1H NMR of the peptide alone, (b) STD NMR of PR1 alone, (c) 1H NMR of EGCG alone, (d) STD NMR of EGCG alone, (e) 1H NMR of EGCG/Peptide/Glucose mixture, (f) STD NMR of EGCG/Peptide/Glucose mixture and (g) STD spectrum of EGCG/peptide mixture.

Figure 5. STD spectra of a mixture of 0.5mM PR1PR2 and 3 mM EGCG in H2O/D2O at pH 6.2, and chemical structures of EGCG. (a) 1H NMR of the peptide alone, (b) STD NMR of PR1 alone, (c) 1H NMR of EGCG alone, (d) STD NMR of EGCG alone, (e) 1H NMR of EGCG/Peptide/Glucose mixture, (f) STD NMR of EGCG/Peptide/Glucose mixture and (g) STD spectrum of EGCG/peptide mixture.



The first part of the present work deals with the total 1H, 13C and 15N NMR assignment of a consequent part of the proline-rich domaine (50 residues over 93, the richest part in proline residues) of the Tau protein that confirms its unfolded nature. This work completes assignments performed first by Smet, Lippens et al.,(23, 30) followed by those done by Narayanan et al.(31) that reach 92 to 96 % assignment depending on the Tau isoforms studied. Another strategy has been developed on the full length Tau 441 protein by Harbison et al.,(24) that allows the assignment of 93% of its backbone. However, all these strategies, while done on full length Tau isoforms, required at least a partial 13C and 15N labeling, and do not permit the assignment of most of the proline residues.
The choice of studying a zone overlapping the two proline regions of Tau (P1 and P2) embedding most of the proline residues (15 over 22), alone or in pairs (4 proline pairs over 6) was guided by two occurrences: it is (i) the place of many biological events whose deregulation entails neurodegenerative pathologies and (ii) a potential target for drugs susceptible to protect the protein against deleterious kinases involved in its hyperphosphorylation and its consequent aggregation under neurofilament tangles (32).
Polyphenols, and especially EGCG, have been reported to have many beneficial effects upon health and specifically to prevent neurodegenerative diseases belonging from tauopathies (33). Several explanations are proposed to explain the beneficial effect of EGCG to fight tauopathies such as Alzheimer. It can act directly on the amyloid fibril formation by binding the native polypeptides and preventing their conversion into toxic amyloid fibrils (34). It was also shown to inhibit Tau aggregation both in vitro (35) and in vivo (8). The potential of EGCG to benefit AD patients, that is currently under investigation (36),  requires more data to understand its action process. This is the second goal of this work, which furnishes molecular or even atomic details of the role that procyandins may play with respect to Tau. In a first study, we tested different galloylated and non galloylated procyanidins (15) on a peptide fragment belonging from the P2 domaine of Tau (PR2 : Gly201-Thr220) : galloylated polyphenols, and mainly EGCG presented a higher affinity towards the peptide, and at least 3 molecules were able to bind PR2 by mean of hydrogen bonds in two distinct regions involving threonines : Thr205-Gly207 and Thr212-Lys215. In the present study, results obtained for the PR1 peptide (Ile171-Lys180) are somehow different: the difference of affinity between non galloylated vs galloylated polyphenols is not as much marked as for PR2. However, EGCG still remains the polyphenol with the highest affinity, and one major binding site was identified at the level of Ser184 and Lys190 mostly through hydrogen bonding as shown by dynamics calculations. Using the longest PR1PR2 peptide, the scenario highlights some interesting differences for EGCG: a higher affinity is observed (Kd close to 0.5 mM) but a number of binding sites reduced to 1.5. Such a phenomenon has been already described by us (37) for saliva proline-rich proteins and explained by the unfolded nature of the peptide which, when long enough, becomes able to “wrap around” the polyphenol, and then reduces its number of binding sites. For the PR1PR2 peptide, the main binding sites were identified at the level of Lys180 and Thr212 as suggested by the maximal amplitude of their NH chemical shifts through EGCG titration. However, we can estimate that the wrapping movement of the peptide around the polyphenol is quite dynamic since no supplementary NOE effect was observed neither between protons belonging from the peptide nor between EGCG and the peptide. On the EGCG side, the interaction mainly occurs at the level of the ester function, especially, a hydrogen bond appears between the oxygen of the carbonyl function acting as an H acceptor and the OH of the Thr or Ser residues or the ε NH2 of Lys acting as H donors. This information obtained from dynamic calculations is strengthened by STD NMR experiments since the protons receiving the highest degree of saturation define the functional group involved in binding. The present study shows that the most responsive protons with respect to STD NMR are those of the galloyl group (H2”/H6”, see fig. 5) at the tight proximity of the carbonyl suspected to be involved.
Galloylated polyphenols, and especially EGCG, obviously exhibit a higher affinity towards proline rich proteins (15, 38) than their non-galloylated counterpart. The analysis of hydrogen bond formations between the proline-rich peptide PR2 and different polyphenols during the dynamic runs performed evidences unexpectedly the greatest capacity of the ester carbonyl of galloylated polyphenols to accept an hydrogen bond as regards to amide carbonyls (15) and can explain the difference observed in affinity. However, that designates the green Tea EGCG as a good candidate to carry on further studies, and notably its ability to prevent peptide phosphorylation and precipitation under kinase attack (work in progress).
Finally, the behavior of the longest PR1PR2 Tau peptide in the presence of EGCG, i.e. its tendency to embed the polyphenol is noteworthy per se, since EGCG can act as a double-edged sword against AD: by preventing kinases attack since their target is the same (Thr/Ser residues in the vicinity of Pro) and by preventing the formation of neurofibrillary tangles due to changes occurring in its 3D structure. These results confirm what Wobsts et al. suspected on a long Tau fragment (39).
In conclusion, this work gives some molecular insights to understand the beneficial effect of polyphenols, and especially EGCG, against tauopathies such as AD. In fact, polyphenols in general, and more specifically EGCG, have interested the scientific community since the beginning of the millennium in their therapeutic efficacy, mainly in dementia, but few reports aim to explain the molecular basis of their action. In light of our work, it is noteworthy that polyphenols of the procyanidin family are able to bind the proline-rich domaine of Tau. While depending on their chemical nature (15), their affinity is weak but suitably relevant to compete all the more with deleterious kinases (40) since binding takes place in the region targeted by kinases. Lastly, the conformation preference, that the longest peptide is able to adapt when complexing the polyphenol, may help to modulate its pathologic mechanism of aggregation.


Acknowledgements: The authors want to thank the Région Aquitaine for supporting equipment of CESAMO and IECB, the Université de Bordeaux and the CNRS for their financial helps and the TGIR-RMN-THC Fr3050 CNRS for conducting the 800 MHz NMR experiments. Marie Guéroux and Charlotte Fleau gratefully acknowledge the Ministère de l’Education Nationale for their PhD grants. Isabelle Pianet gratefully thanks Nathan McClenaghan for the English improvement of the manuscript. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Conflict of Interest: The authors declare to have no conflict of interests.



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