Drugs currently used for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease (AD) produce limited clinical benefits, and there is no diseasemodifying therapy yet available. Compounds that inhibit or modulate γ-secretase, the pivotal enzyme that generates β-amyloid (Aβ), are potential therapeutics for AD. This article briefly reviews the profile of γ-secretase inhibitors and modulators that have reached the clinic. Studies in both transgenic and non-transgenic animal models of AD have indicated that γsecretase inhibitors, administered by the oral route, are able to lower brain Aβ concentrations. However, scanty data are available on the effects of these compounds on brain Aβ deposition after prolonged administration. γ-Secretase inhibitors may cause abnormalities in the gastrointestinal tract, thymus, spleen, skin, and decrease in lymphocytes and alterations in hair color in experimental animals and in man, effects believed to be associated with the inhibition of the cleavage of Notch, a transmembrane receptor involved in regulating cell-fate decisions. Unfortunately, two large Phase III clinical trials of semagacestat in mild-to-moderate AD patients were prematurely interrupted because of the observation of a detrimental cognitive and functional effect of the drug. These detrimental effects were mainly ascribed to the inhibition of the processing of an unknown substrate of γ-secretase. It has been also hypothesized that the detrimental cognitive effects observed after semagacestat administration are due to the accumulation of the neurotoxic precursor of Aβ (the carboxy-terminal fragment of amyloid precursor protein, APP, or CTFβ) resulting from the block of the γ-secretase cleavage activity on APP. Some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and other small organic molecules have been found to modulate γsecretase shifting its cleavage activity from longer to shorter Aβ species without affecting Notch cleavage. However, two large Phase III studies in mild AD patients with tarenflurbil, a putative γ- secretase modulator, were also completely negative. The failure of tarenflurbil was ascribed to low potency and brain penetration. New more selective γ-secretase inhibitors and more potent, more brain penetrant γ-secretase modulators are being developed with the hope of overcoming the previous setbacks. Further understanding of the reasons of the failures of these γ-secretase-based drugs in AD may be important for the future research on effective treatments for this devastating disease.
Keywords: Alzheimer's disease, dementia, mild cognitive impairment, β-amyloid, γ-secretase inhibitors, γ-secretase modulators, Notch processing, semagacestat, tarenflurbil, γ-secretase complex
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