Amyloid protein aggregates are associated with dozens of devastating diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and diabetes type 2. While structure-based discovery of compounds has been effective in combating numerous infectious and metabolic diseases, ignorance of amyloid structure has hindered similar approaches to amyloid disease. Here we show that knowledge of the atomic structure of one of the adhesive, steric-zipper segments of the amyloid-beta (Aβ) protein of Alzheimer’s disease, when coupled with computational methods, identifies eight diverse but mainly flat compounds and three compound derivatives that reduce Aβ cytotoxicity against mammalian cells by up to 90%. Although these compounds bind to Aβ fibers, they do not reduce fiber formation of Aβ. Structure-activity relationship studies of the fiber-binding compounds and their derivatives suggest that compound binding increases fiber stability and decreases fiber toxicity, perhaps by shifting the equilibrium of Aβ from oligomers to fibers.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, estimated to affect roughly five million people in the United States, and its incidence is steadily increasing as the population ages. A pathological hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease is the presence in the brain of aggregates of two proteins: tangles of a protein called tau; and fibers and smaller units (oligomers) of a peptide called amyloid beta.
Many attempts have been made to screen libraries of natural and synthetic compounds to identify substances that might prevent the aggregation and toxicity of amyloid. Such studies revealed that polyphenols found in green tea and in the spice turmeric can inhibit the formation of amyloid fibrils. Moreover, a number of dyes reduce the toxic effects of amyloid on cells, although significant side effects prevent these from being used as drugs.
Structure-based drug design, in which the structure of a target protein is used to help identify compounds that will interact with it, has been used to generate therapeutic agents for a number of diseases. Here, Jiang et al. report the first application of this technique in the hunt for compounds that inhibit the cytotoxicity of amyloid beta. Using the known atomic structure of the protein in complex with a dye, Jiang et al. performed a computational screen of 18,000 compounds in search of those that are likely to bind effectively.
The compounds that showed the strongest predicted binding were then tested for their ability to interfere with the aggregation of amyloid beta and to protect cells grown in culture from its toxic effects. Compounds that reduced toxicity did not reduce the abundance of protein aggregates, but they appear to increase the stability of fibrils. This is consistent with other evidence suggesting that small, soluble forms (oligomers) of amyloid beta that break free from the fibrils may be the toxic agent in Alzheimer’s disease, rather than the fibrils themselves.
In addition to uncovering compounds with therapeutic potential in Alzheimer’s disease, this work presents a new approach for identifying proteins that bind to amyloid fibrils. Given that amyloid accumulation is a feature of many other diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and type 2 diabetes, the approach could have broad therapeutic applications.