Developing novel immunogens for a safe and effective Alzheimer's disease vaccine

Cynthia A Lemere
Progress in Brain Research 2009, 175: 83-93
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most prevalent form of neurodegeneration; however, therapies to prevent or treat AD are inadequate. Amyloid-beta (Abeta) protein accrues in cortical senile plaques, one of the key neuropathological hallmarks of AD, and is elevated in brains of early onset AD patients in a small number of families that bear certain genetic mutations, further implicating its role in this devastating neurological disease. In addition, soluble Abeta oligomers have been shown to be detrimental to neuronal function. Therapeutic strategies aimed at lowering cerebral Abeta levels are currently under development. One strategy is to immunize AD patients with Abeta peptides so that they will generate antibodies that bind to Abeta protein and enhance its clearance. As of 1999, Abeta immunotherapy, either through active immunization with Abeta peptides or through passive transfer of Abeta-specific antibodies, has been shown to reduce cerebral Abeta levels and improve cognitive deficits in AD mouse models and lower plaque load in nonhuman primates. However, a Phase II clinical trial of active immunization using full-length human Abeta1-42 peptide and a strong Th1-biased adjuvant, QS-21, ended prematurely in 2002 because of the onset of meningoencephalitis in approximately 6% of the AD patients enrolled in the study. It is possible that T cell recognition of the human full-length Abeta peptide as a self-protein may have induced an adverse autoimmune response in these patients. Although only approximately 20% of immunized patients generated anti-Abeta titers, responders showed some general slowing of cognitive decline. Focal cortical regions devoid of Abeta plaques were observed in brain tissues of several immunized patients who have since come to autopsy. In order to avoid a deleterious immune response, passive Abeta immunotherapy is under investigation by administering monthly intravenous injections of humanized Abeta monoclonal antibodies to AD patients. However, a safe and effective active Abeta vaccine would be more cost-effective and more readily available to a larger AD population. We have developed several novel short Abeta immunogens that target the Abeta N-terminus containing a strong B cell epitope while avoiding the Abeta mid-region and C-terminus containing T cell epitopes. These immunogens include dendrimeric Abeta1-15 (16 copies of Abeta1-15 on a lysine antigen tree), 2xAbeta1-15 (a tandem repeat of two lysine-linked Abeta1-15 peptides), and 2xAbeta1-15 with the addition of a three amino acid RGD motif (R-2xAbeta1-15). Intranasal immunization with our short Abeta fragment immunogens and a mucosal adjuvant, mutant Escherichia coli heat-labile enterotoxin LT(R192G), resulted in reduced cerebral Abeta levels, plaque deposition, and gliosis, as well as increased plasma Abeta levels and improved cognition in a transgenic mouse model of AD. Preclinical trials in nonhuman primates, and human clinical trials using similar Abeta immunogens, are now underway. Abeta immunotherapy looks promising but must be made safer and more effective at generating antibody titers in the elderly. It is hoped that these novel immunogens will enhance Abeta antibody generation across a broad population and avoid the adverse events seen in the earlier clinical trial.

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