New Player in Alzheimer’s Disease Pathogenesis Identified

Scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) have shown that a protein called membralin is critical for keeping Alzheimer’s disease pathology in check. The study, published in Nature Communications, shows that membralin regulates the cell’s machinery for producing beta-amyloid (or amyloid beta, Aβ), the protein that causes neurons to die in Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our results suggest a new path toward future treatments for Alzheimer’s disease,” says Huaxi Xu, Ph.D., the Jeanne and Gary Herberger Leadership Chair of SBP’s Neuroscience and Aging Research Center. “If we can find molecules that modulate membralin, or identify its role in the cellular protein disposal machinery known as the endoplasmic reticulum-associated degradation (ERAD) system, this may put the brakes on neurodegeneration.”

ERAD is the mechanism by which cells get rid of proteins that are folded incorrectly in the ER. It also controls the levels of certain mature, functional proteins. Xu’s team found that one of the fully formed, working proteins that ERAD regulates is a component of an enzyme called gamma secretase that generates Aβ.

This discovery helps fill in the picture of how Alzheimer’s disease, an incredibly complicated disorder influenced by many genetic and environmental factors. No therapies have yet been demonstrated to slow progression of the disease, which affects around 47 million people worldwide. Until such drugs are developed, patients face a steady, or sometimes rapid, decline in memory and reasoning.

Memory loss in Alzheimer’s results from the toxic effects of Aβ, which causes connections between neurons to break down. Aβ is created when gamma secretase cuts the amyloid precursor protein into smaller pieces. While Aβ is made in all human brains as they age, differences in the rate at which it is produced and eliminated from the brain and in how it affects neurons, means that not everyone develops dementia.

“We were interested in membralin because of its genetic association with Alzheimer’s, and in this study we established the connection between membralin and Alzheimer’s based on findings from the laboratory of a former colleague at SBP, Professor Dongxian Zhang,” Xu explains. “That investigation showed that eliminating the gene for membralin leads to rapid motor neuron degeneration, but its cellular function wasn’t clear.”

Using proteomics, microscopic analysis, and functional assays, the group provided definitive evidence that membralin functions as part of the ERAD system. Later, they found that membralin-dependent ERAD breaks down a protein that’s part of the gamma secretase enzyme complex, and that reducing the amount of membralin in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s exacerbates neurodegeneration and memory problems.

“Our findings explain why mutations that decrease membralin expression would increase the risk for Alzheimer’s,” Xu comments. “This would lead to an accumulation of gamma secretase because its degradation is disabled, and the gamma-secretase complex would then generate more Aβ. Those mutations are rare, but there may be other factors that cause neurons to make less membralin.”

Xu and colleagues also observed lower levels of membralin, on average, in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s than in unaffected individuals, demonstrating the relevance of their findings to humans.

“Previous studies have suggested that ERAD contributes to many diseases where cells become overwhelmed by an irregular accumulation of proteins, including Alzheimer’s,” says Xu. “This study provides conclusive, mechanistic evidence that ERAD plays an important role in restraining Alzheimer’s disease pathology. We now plan to search for compounds that enhance production of membralin or the rate of ERAD to test whether they ameliorate pathology and cognitive decline in models of Alzheimer’s. That would further support the validity of this mechanism as a drug target.”

Cytotoxins Contribute to Virulence of Deadly Epidemic Bacterial Infections

Beginning in the mid-1980s, an epidemic of severe invasive infections caused by Streptococcus pyogenes (S. pyogenes), also known as group A streptococcus (GAS), occurred in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. The general public became much more aware of these serious and sometimes fatal infections, commonly known as the “flesh-eating disease.” Potent cytotoxins produced by this human pathogen contribute to the infection. A new study in The American Journal of Pathology reports that the bacteria’s full virulence is dependent on the presence of two specific cytotoxins, NADase (SPN) and streptolysin O (SLO).

Bacteria produce cytotoxins that can cause cell death and result in infections of the deep fascia and other tissues, including necrotizing fasciitis. “Our research revealed that the most severe form of the disease requires two cytotoxins. If either one or both are missing, the infection is much less dangerous,” explained lead investigator James M. Musser, MD, PhD, chairman of the Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine at Houston Methodist Research Institute (Houston, TX).

To evaluate how the toxins SPN and SLO act together, investigators used mice infected with genetically altered S. pyogenes strains that produced either, both, or neither of the toxins. They found that mutant strains lacking either SPN or SLO or both do not cause the most severe forms of necrotizing fasciitis, necrotizing myositis, bacteremia, and other soft tissue infections. Production of both toxins was required for full infection virulence.

Resistance to bacterial infections depends in part on innate immunity conferred by white blood cells, including polymorphonuclear leukocytes (primarily neutrophils). The researchers found evidence that infections with SPN- and SLO-deficient S. pyogenes could be controlled better because they were less likely to resist the bactericidal effects of human polymorphonuclear leukocytes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 700 to 1,100 cases of necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A streptococcus have occurred yearly since 2010. Although the disease primarily affects the young and old and those with underlying chronic conditions, it may also develop in healthy individuals. Transmission occurs person-to-person, many times through a break in the skin.

“We do not have a Group A strep vaccine that works right now,” commented Dr. Musser. “The information we gained from this research may help to develop more effective therapeutics, such as inhibitors of these two toxins, or even a vaccine.”