Stay in school and drink rain

The largest-ever environmental and occupational risk factor survey in PSP was just published. Irene Litvan of UCSD led a group of sites throughout North America with 284 patients and 284 controls who were friends or non-blood relatives of the patients.
The results corroborate the finding of all three previous such studies that lesser educational attainment is more common in people with PSP. Two of those studies were done by me and my colleagues in New Jersey (1988 and 1996) and the other was in France by Vidal et al (2009).
In this new study, the odds ratio for having earned a college degree was 0.585 (95% confidence interval 0.345 to 0.993, p = 0.047). The only other statistically significant result was that people with PSP reported having drunk well water for an average of 11.7 years, while for the controls, the figure was 7.4 years. That p-value after multivariate correction, was 0.032. They showed that these two findings were not correlated to each other in this subject group.
Interestingly, the well-documented tendency in Parkinson’s disease for non-smoking was not observed. In fact, there was a non-significant trend in the opposite direction, with the odds ratio of 1.096 (multivariate corrected p = 0.082) for smoking among the PSP group relative to controls.
So what’s the take-home? We’ve been saying for years that most of the diseases for which we have no clear cause (most cases of cancer, Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis, schizophrenia, PSP, etc.) are the result of a genetic predisposition and an environmental trigger, with “environment” being broadly defined as anything other than the person’s genome. This study suggests that for PSP, the trigger (or one of the triggers) is something associated with the lifestyles, work places or home neighborhoods of people with lesser education. But the only clue the study provided beyond that is that the trigger may be something in well water. Furthermore, using well water may tend to correlate with other toxic exposures or experiences that the survey did not ask about.
This result may now stimulate researchers to study “environmental” causes of PSP more closely and may induce granting agencies to support such studies. Of course, this search will be guided in part by ongoing genetic studies of PSP: If a variant in a detoxification gene is found to be over-represented in PSP, then perhaps the corresponding toxin is the environmental trigger. If a gene variant that causes over-expression of a gene is found to be over-represented in PSP, then environmental agents that cause a similar effect would immediately become suspect.
Another point, just to make life more complicated: Environmental toxins may not only act directly, as, for example, lead in the drinking water affects childhood brain development. They may also cause epigenetic changes that affect the expression of genes. They may also affect the gut bacteria, the “endobiome,” which itself produces and alters a wide array of compounds, some of which could be pathogenic.
So we’ve got work to do, but Dr. Litvan and colleagues have taken an important step.

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PSP treatments in or near human trials

When a patient or caregiver asks me if anything can be done for PSP aside from palliative measures, my ready answer is that there’s a lot of research now into specific treatments that might slow or halt disease progression. I never have time to get into details in the time available, so I’m not sure my assurance is credible. So, putting my keyboard where my mouth is, here is a pretty thorough list of treatments that are in human trials for PSP or will enter such trials this year:

Anti-tau antibodies: BMS-986168 (Phase 1), C2N-8E12 (Phase 1). Both are in early stages of recruitment at multiple North American sites. The rationale is to bind and destroy abnormal tau en route between brain cells. (Disclosure: I’m a consultant to Bristol-Myers Squibb and a site investigator .) Other drug companies and academic labs are also working on anti-tau antibodies, but at an earlier stage.

Tau anti-aggregants: Leucomethylthioninium (LMTX). This is a derivative of methylene blue in Phase III for Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia; If successful, PSP could be next. But beware the hype that has accompanied methylene blue and its derivatives.  The results from earlier-phase trials have not been published, which is curious.

Microtubule stabilizer: TPI-287 (Phase I). This is closely related to the taxane group of cancer drugs. In cancer, stabilizing microtubules helps prevent cells from dividing. In the brain, it compensates for the loss of tau, which normally stabilizes microtubules as the cells’ transport and skeletal system.

Tau acetylation inhibitor: Salsalate (Phase 1); This is being tested at UCSF, UCLA and UCSD in an open-label “futility” design. In other words, the study will determine not if the drug works, but if it deserves to be tested further. The same drug is being tested for multiple other disorders and has long been on the market as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.

Tau aggregation inhibitors: ASN-561, an O-GlcNAcase inhibitor. This will probably enter Phase I in 2016. It acts by promoting the attachment of a sugar molecule, N-acetyl glucosamine, to the tau protein, thereby inhibiting its aggregation. Such “OGA” inhibitors are also being tested for other conditions, including cancer.

Anti-sense oligonucleotides: These are RNA molecules designed to inhibit the production of 4-repeat tau, which is over-produced in PSP relative to 3-repeat tau. That imbalance could be contributing to tau aggregation. These have not reached human trials.

Anti-microglial agent: FK506 reduces the activity of microglia, inflammatory cells in the CNS. Evidence is increasing that such inflammation is a cause, rather than an effect, of cell loss in many of the neurodegenerative diseases. In fact, several immune-response-related genes were among the top 10 “hits” in the 2011 study of genetic risk factors in PSP.

Young plasma: Only in 10 patients, non-controlled and only at UCSF, this study will give plasma from healthy men younger than 30 to patients with PSP. The primary outcome issue is safety and tolerability, but efficacy measures will also be applied. Recruitment is under way. The theory is that some unknown blood-borne molecule in young people prevents them from developing PSP and could slow the process in someone with the disease.

Mitochondrial nutrient: Coenzyme Q-10 (Two small double-blind studies, one published and one unpublished) show similar modest improvement in PSP Rating Scale scores. This is a symptomatic treatment but the above items on this list are all potentially neuroprotective.

For more information on any of these, see http://www.clinicaltrials.gov.

Is PSP the route to not just Alzheimer’s but also Parkinson’s?

We’ve known for many years that Parkinson’s disease, which the textbooks call an α-synucleinopathy, has some aggregated tau as well. It appears that each of the two proteins, once misfolded, not only induces its own normal brethren to misfold, it also induces copies of the other to misfold.
The first demonstration of this synergistic misfolding and resulting aggregation came in a series of three papers between 2002 and 2004 from the lab of John Trojanowski and Virginia Lee at Penn. The first authors were John Duda, Bernard Giasson and Paul Kotzbauer. (Disclaimer: I was one of their co-authors on all three.)

Now, Julia Gerson, a grad student in the lab of Rakez Kayed at the University of Texas Galveston, has presented work at the Society for Neuroscience that harnesses that finding of a PD/tauopathy overlap for therapeutic purposes. (Another disclaimer: Kayed has a related grant from CurePSP, where I chair the grant review.)

Gerson and friends created antibodies directed at oligomeric tau, which is tau in small aggregates of maybe 20 or 30 molecules, which are still small enough to remain in solution in the cytoplasm and therefore invisible to light microscopy, unlike mature neurofibrillary tangles. They didn’t want to target normal, non-aggregated tau for fear of disrupting the normal function of that protein, which is to stabilize microtubules.

They injected those anti-tau antibodies into mice that had a copy of a variant of the human gene encoding α-synuclein. The variation was an G209A mutation, producing an A53T alteration in the resulting protein. This is the mutation that my colleagues and I found in 1997 as the cause of PD in a large Italian-American family with autosomal-dominant PD, a finding that first linked PD with α-synuclein. (That’s Disclaimer #3. You’re starting to see why I’m so interested in this new finding.)

The antibody protected the mice against the loss of dopaminergic neurons that the α-synuclein mutation caused in the untreated mutant mice. Mice that received antibody against normal tau did even more poorly than the controls.

So here’s the take-home: Developing an anti-tau antibody for treatment of PSP may also help Parkinson’s. We already expect that it may help Alzheimer’s because that’s clearly a tau disorder. But now, the synergistic toxicity of tau and α-synuclein could also allow a single anti-tau antibody to protect against both Parkinson’s and dementia with Lewy bodies (which also has aggregation of both proteins).

If I were the drug companies, I’d be sitting up and taking notice. Two companies, Bristol-Myers Squibb and AbbVie (licensing an antibody from C2N) have already started anti-tau antibody trials in people with PSP. Others have anti-tau programs in progress.

This new report, which may extend the utility of those products to Parkinson’s, should give that snowball an extra push.

Road test for a Roadmap

This is a request for your suggestions to improve/amend CurePSP’s research plan, which is now two years old.

Here’s a link to the first and current version of our Research Roadmap:  Roadmap for Symposium 2013. You can also find it here.

It was designed as a guide to grant applicants and donors who want to know what CurePSP is interested in funding.  That’s not to say that we wouldn’t fund other things, but proposals that fit into the Roadmap’s model are viewed more favorably in our grant review process.

The elevator explanation of the model is that it uses unbiased gene searches to identify new risk genes, then finds drug targets among the proteins in the related gene products or cellular pathways, then tests those drugs in lab models, then turns to Pharma to develop those drugs clinically.  Along the way, it calls for new models and new clinical markers to assist in the process.

Clearly, The Roadmap ignores important things such as symptomatic treatments, toxic etiologies, clinical characterization, epidemiology and neurophysiologic analysis, not to mention serendipitous neuroprotective treatments with unclear mechanism.  But it provides a focus and an orientation.

So please use the Comments function to leave me your suggestions for improvement.  Keep in mind that the Roadmap should remain relatively simple and generic.  We don’t want to direct research from the top down.  On the other hand, we don’t want the document to be so generic as to be useless.

Obviously, feel free to respond to others’ comments; and have fun!

 

Just a residue full of sugar . . .

I’ve been jolted out of my non-posting torpor by CurePSP’s annual International Research Symposium, held on November 6 in La Jolla. The lecture hall was smack dab on the beach and despite the quality of the presentations, it was easy for the eye to wander from the lectern to the doorway framing a view of swaying palms and the blue Pacific. Thanks to Jeff Friedman for arranging the venue. Anyway, I’ll be describing some of the goings-on in this post and the next few.
Two of the presentations, both from pharma scientists, described drugs in development for PSP that reduce tau aggregation by inhibiting OGA (O-GlcNAcase; pronounced “oh-GLY-na-kaze”). That enzyme removes the sugar N-acetyl-beta-D-glucosamine from either serine or threonine residues of proteins. The opposing reaction, catalyzed by O-GlcNAc transferase, like other post-translational modifications, is a common way for cells to regulate proteins. In the case of tau, having that sugar in place reduces aggregation.
All of the OGA inhibitors being developed are small molecules suitable for oral administration. The smaller company with an OGA inhibitor program is Asceneuron, based in Lausanne, Switzerland. They expect to start a Phase I human trial in 2016 although they are still in an early stage of mouse model trials and they haven’t settled on one lead compound for further development. The larger company, Merck, is at a more advanced stage. Their drug, MK-8719, has shown that it can slow brain degeneration in mice transgenic for one of the FTD MAPT mutations. The drug also inhibits tau aggregation in a human iPSC line and in an early Phase I human trial in healthy volunteers was found to be well-tolerated and to increase O-GlcNAcylation in blood mononuclear cells.
Let’s hope that both companies move their OGA inhibitors to Phase II trials in the next couple of years.

A welcome formality

I see my patients with PSP on special clinic days when I have arranged for specialized professional help and have allotted extra time for the visits. The downside is that that it can be a dispiriting few hours, with little to offer anyone that day beyond symptomatic treatment, information and a pep talk. So I use this blog to accentuate the positive.

In that vein, I’m happy to report the drug/biotech industry’s efforts to develop a therapeutic antibody are proceeding apace. The latest tidbit is that the FDA has granted orphan drug status to the anti-tau antibody designated C2N-8E12 being developed by a joint venture of C2N Diagnostics and Abbvie. A 32-patient Phase I trial headed by Adam Boxer at UCSF will begin sometime soon. Achieving orphan status allows the company certain financial advantages and a longer patent life. Both are critically important for any new treatment for a rare disease, as the potential profits wouldn’t otherwise justify the development cost and risk.
Several other companies are working on anti-tau therapeutic antibodies, many of them aiming initially at PSP. Their ultimate Holy Grail is a treatment for Alzheimer’s, but it’s easier to conduct a clinical trial in PSP, as its progression is more readily predicted and measured. Furthermore, tau is the only protein known to aggregate in PSP, which makes that disease a simpler “model system” than AD, where both tau and beta-amyloid aggregate. The company furthest along this road is Bristol-Myers Squibb, whose tau antibody trial seeks 48 patients with PSP at 12 centers across the US and will start enrolling in a few weeks.
So I’m hoping for sunnier PSP clinic days soon!

Speech therapy in PSP?

The Lee Silverman Voice Training (LSVT) “Loud” program is a popular method used by speech/language clinicians to improve vocal volume and clarity in people with Parkinson’s disease.  I’ve never been all that enthusiastic about it because there is no literature demonstrating superiority to traditional forms of speech therapy for PD.  For another thing, I’m a little suspicious of its proprietary financial model, where a clinician pays anywhere from $300 (for a student) to $990 (for a professional) for a two-day course that yields a certificate permitting them to advertise that they offer LSVT.   The courses and certificates are available only from LSVT Global, Inc.

Potential evils of capitalism aside, it’s good to see someone finally trying to help the dysarthria of PSP.  Our heroes are a group in Rome headed by the well-regarded movement disorders authority Fabrizio Stocchi, MD PhD.  The paper‘s first author is Patrizio Sale, MD PhD. a neuro-rehabilitation specialist.  The work appeared in the European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine.

The study compared the benefit of LSVT Loud in 16 patients with PSP to the same four-week course of treatment in 23 patients with PD.  Both groups did improve in most of the measures applied.  Probably the most positive result was in the reading task, where the maximum volume for the patients with PSP improved from an average of 82.5 dB to an average of 87.5 dB. Somewhat more modest benefits accrued for nonverbal phonation and for non-reading speech.

Unfortunately, there were no control patients receiving sham treatment, traditional treatment or no treatment.  We don’t know if the improvement will long persist, but the literature suggests that it does so in PD.  Equally important is that the study did not evaluate articulation — only volume.  Furthermore, the study was quite small, inviting flukey results.  Clearly, more work is needed, but for now, I’ll try sending some of my patients with PSP and hypophonia (low vocal volume) for LSVT.  I’ll let you know what happens.