Tuesday, January 26, 2010

ApoE4 and Alzheimer’s disease: stratified medicine and development of new therapeutic strategies

In the December 15, 2009 issue of Neurology, a research report by Stephen Salloway and his colleagues at the Butler Hospital and Brown University (Providence, RI) and an editorial by Dan Kaufer and Sam Gandy (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) focus on a Phase II multicenter placebo-controlled clinical trial of Elan/Wyeth’s bapineuzumab (AAB-001) in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease (AD). (Wyeth is now part of Pfizer.) (A subscription is required to read the full text of both of these articles.) Bapineuzumab is a monoclonal antibody (MAb) drug that is specific for amyloid-β (Aβ) peptide. The dominant paradigm among AD researchers and drug developers is that the disease is caused by aberrant metabolism of Aβ, resulting in accumulation of neurotoxic Aβ plaques. This paradigm is known as the “amyloid hypothesis”.

The overall result of the study by Salloway et al. was that there was no difference in cognitive function between patients in the drug-treated and the placebo groups. However, the study did not have sufficient statistical power to exclude the possibility that there was such a difference. About 10% of patients treated with the agent also experienced vasogenic edema (VE), which was reversible. (Cerebral VE is the infiltration of intravascular fluid and proteins into brain tissue, as the result of breakdown of the blood-brain barrier.)

Retrospective analysis of the data suggested that bapineuzumab-treated patients who were not carriers of the apolipoprotein E epsilon4 allele (ApoE4) showed improved cognitive function as compared to placebo treatment, and that they had a lower incidence of VE than ApoE4 carriers. The ApoE4 polymorphism is the only known, well-characterized genetic risk factor associated with the development of late-onset AD. Of the three common isoforms of ApoE, ApoE3 is the most common, followed by ApoE4 and ApoE2, respectively. Unlike ApoE4, the ApoE2 allele appears to protect against development of AD. Some researchers estimate that allelic variations in ApoE may account for over 95% of AD cases.

In the study by Salloway et al., nearly two-thirds of the AD patients carried one or more ApoE4 alleles; thus only the remaining one-third of patients appeared to show positive effects of bapineuzumab treatment according to the retrospective analysis. However, the idea that the drug is efficacious in ApoE4 noncarriers is only a hypothesis, which will require prospective clinical trials to confirm. Elan and Pfizer are now conducting large Phase III clinical trials of bapineuzumab, which have prospectively segregated enrollment into ApoE4 carrier and noncarrier groups.

The hypothesized association of ApoE4 noncarrier status of AD patients with bapineuzumab efficacy and safety has been used as a case study in workshops on stratified medicine sponsored by the FDA, MIT, and industry partners in 2009 and 2010. You can read about the October 2009 workshop here and here. The most recent workshop was held at MIT on January 19, 2010. In these workshops, two case studies were discussed: the use of diagnostic tests for the HER2 receptor in identifying breast cancer patients who are likely to benefit from treatment with trastuzumab (Genentech/Roche’s Herceptin), and the bapineuzumab/ApoE4 case. The HER2/ trastuzumab relationship is well known and well characterized, and is considered to be a paradigm of stratified medicine. This contrasts with the bapineuzumab/ApoE4 association, which remains a hypothesis pending the results of the Phase III prospective clinical studies.

A growing minority of researchers is skeptical that the amyloid hypothesis is sufficient to account for AD pathogenesis in all stages of the disease or in various disease subpopulations, and they are investigating other pathways that may contribute to the disease, either in combination with the amyloid pathway or as alternative mechanisms. We have discussed alternative hypotheses for AD pathogenesis in a 2004 article published in Genetic Engineering News (available on our website), and in book-length reports published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute in 2006 and in 2009.

The search for alternative hypotheses takes on added urgency because of the clinical failure of several AD drugs that had been designed based on the amyloid hypothesis. These include Neurochem’s (now Bellus Health) Alzhemed (3-amino-1-propanesulfonic acid) and Myriad Pharmaceuticals’ Flurizan (tarenflurbil), both of which failed in Phase III clinical trials. Based on the overall results of the Phase II trial of bapineuzumab, most researchers and industry commentators would add bapineuzumab to the list, unless the stratified Phase III trial shows that the drug is significantly efficacious and safe for ApoE4 noncarriers.

Since ApoE4 carrier status is such a prominent risk factor for developing late-onset AD, might ApoE4 itself be a target for drug discovery in AD? Drs. Kaufer and Gandy suggest that such an approach might be fruitful, whatever the outcome of the Phase III trial of bapineuzumab. Several academic laboratories have been investigating mechanisms by which ApoE4 may be involved in the pathobiology of AD. You may read two recent papers on this subject here and here. ApoE4 may contribute to AD pathogenesis via multiple mechanisms, including by causing synaptic deficits and mitochondrial dysfunction in neurons, and by inducing endoplasmic reticulum stress leading to astrocyte dysfunction.

Given the prominence of ApoE4 expression as a risk factor for AD, the study of the mechanistic basis of ApoE4’s role in AD pathobiology needs greater attention. Hopefully, this research will lead to the development of novel therapeutic strategies for AD.

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