"Our ambition is to facilitate the development of effective drugs against neurodegenerative dementias by developing better biomarkers for diagnosis and treatment effects." Henrik Zetterberg
UK DRI Group Leader
With a background in molecular biology and medicine, Prof Henrik Zetterberg has spent the past 15 years focusing on the development of biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders - becoming a world expert in the process. He has published more than 1100 scientific articles and has received numerous awards.
1. At a glance
Developing early tests for dementia
One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is the build-up of abnormal proteins in the brain. While usually broken down and eliminated under healthy conditions, in patients with the disease, fragments of the protein amyloid beta (Aβ) clump together to form plaques. Scientists believe this is a central event leading to the death of neurons, but there have been disappointing results from clinical trials that have attempted to target the disease mechanism. This has cast doubt on whether the event is a cause or a consequence of Alzheimer's disease.
Whether or not Aβ plaque build-up is important in disease progression, problems in the trials may arise for other reasons, including;
- Treatment may have been given too late to stop the disease progression
- Evaluation of the biological changes following treatment may have been inadequate
Prof Henrik Zetterberg’s team is working to address these issues by developing ultrasensitive new tests to help measure molecular changes in body fluids of people with Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. If successful, these tests could be easily utilised to identify patients which are susceptible to these diseases much earlier, not only for recruitment into clinical trials but eventually for treatments developed against the disease. The team also hope to uncover previously unknown biological changes in body fluids, which may give an indication of harmful processes taking place in the brain much earlier in the disease timecourse.
2. Scientific goals
Amyloid beta (Aβ), the key component of extracellular senile plaques in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) brains, is produced from amyloid precursor protein (APP) by proteolytic processing via the β-site APP-cleaving enzyme 1 (BACE1) and the γ-secretase complex. According to the Aβ cascade hypothesis, AD is caused by abnormal accumulation of Aβ in the brain. This process is thought to induce, by unknown means, hyperphosphorylation of the axonal protein tau, formation of intra-neuronal tau inclusions (neurofibrillary tangles) and neurodegeneration.
The ultimate proof of the Aβ cascade hypothesis would be if an Aβ-targeting drug successfully slows down AD in a clinical trial. However, the hypothesis has been challenged by negative results in several phase III clinical trials aimed at inhibiting Aβ production (secretase inhibitors) or increasing its clearance from the brain (anti-Aβ immunotherapy). But these may simply reflect the currently inadequate tests of the Aβ cascade hypothesis in terms of molecular and clinical end-points. The potential to examine brain tissue histopathologically during or immediately after such trials is extremely limited – and therefore improved biomarkers – and improved interpretation of biomarkers is critical. Furthermore, trials in pre-clinical disease stages will at least be needed to address the Aβ cascade hypothesis – these trials bring greater importance to biomarkers since, by definition, the clinical effects are difficult or slow to discern in a population that is not clinically affected.
The recent negative trial outcomes have also highlighted the need for more translational research on disease models to study AD pathogenesis, screen for and evaluate new drug candidates and establish pharmacodynamic biomarkers to verify target engagement and translate model findings to valid readouts in clinical trials. Along similar lines, we need new biomarker tools to study the pathophysiological relevance of and cellular responses to non-Aβ pathologies that are common in AD and highly relevant to several other neurodegenerative diseases, namely tau, α-synuclein and TDP-43.
Main objectives and research goals:
The main goal of this programme is to develop and validate new diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers to examine the primary pathogenesis of AD and other neurodegenerative diseases in disease models and humans and to provide refined tools for clinical trials. The specific aims are to:
1. Develop and validate novel biomarkers for pathological changes that are prevalent in the brains of patients with AD-like clinical phenotypes. Ultrasensitive assays for pathology-specific forms of TDP-43, α-synuclein and tau proteins.
2. Explore whether amyloid build-up in AD is caused by an imbalance in the production and clearance of specific Aβ isoforms.
3. Investigate if Aβ needs brain incubation over many years to become toxic. Isolating toxic and non-toxic Aβ plaques regions and looking for differences in their Aβ composition.
4. Explore γ-secretase dysfunction and/or microglial activation mediated Aβ toxicity. Developing novel biomarkers for γ-secretase and analyse these in longitudinal cohorts of AD patients and controls.
3. UK DRI Biomarker Factory
Launched in January 2022, the UK DRI Biomarker Factory is helping us find crucial new ways to detect and monitor neurodegenerative disease.
Biomarkers have huge potential to transform our understanding of disease and the development of therapeutics. Short for ‘biological markers’, they are a measure – or a flag – of a biological state, helping us identify and monitor healthy biological processes or, crucially, harmful changes occurring in disease. Cutting-edge technology now allows for ultrasensitive detection of biomarkers even in very early stages before disease symptoms present.
The work of Prof Zetterberg is trailblazing this area. The high-performance analytical platform now created is used for fluid biomarker development, validation and measurement. It can now also be accessed as a service for other researchers across the UK and beyond.
Find out more about the UK DRI Biomarker Factory in the launch news article.
4. Team members
Dr Amanda Heslegrave (Senior Postdoctoral Researcher)
Dr Aitana Sogorb Esteve (Postdoctoral Researcher)
Emily Abel (Research Technician)
Imogen Swift (Research Technician)
Carolin Huynh (Research Technician)
Rhiannon Laban (Research Technician)
Mamoona Ghauri (Research Technician)
Elena Veleva (Facility Co-ordinator)
Kathryn Knowles - Research Assistant
Debbie Alawode (PhD Student)
Claire Leckey (PhD Student)
Rachelle Shafei (PhD Student)
Dr Bryan Ng (Visiting Postdoctoral Researcher)
Within UK DRI:
- Prof Bart De Strooper, UK DRI at UCL
- Prof Adrian Isaacs, UK DRI at UCL
Beyond UK DRI:
- Dr Tammaryn Lashley, UCL – extracting Aβ from plaque-containing brain regions with and without tangle pathology and neurodegeneration.
- UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health mass spectrometry laboratory – biomarker discovery.
- Clinical Neurochemistry Laboratory at the University of Gothenburg – sharing protocols, instrument knowledge, staff training and performing biomarker discovery and validation.
- Dr Mehran Salehpour, Uppsala University – carbon-dating of laser-captured Aβ plaques.
Diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers, Alzheimer’s disease, clinical trials, amyloid beta
18O-labelling, mass spectrometry (MS), human iPSCs, laser capture microdissection, immunoprecipitation-mass spectrometry (IP-MS), Single molecule array (Simoa)
8. Key publications
Simone, R. et al. G-quadruplex-binding small molecules ameliorate C9orf72FTD/ALS pathology in vitro and in vivo. EMBO Mol. Med. 2018; 10:22–31.
Byrne, L. M. et al. Evaluation of mutant huntingtin and neurofilament proteins as potential markers in Huntington’s disease. Sci. Transl. Med. 2018; 10:(458) pii: eaat7108
Kvartsberg, H. et al. The intact postsynaptic protein neurogranin is reduced in brain tissue from patients with familial and sporadic Alzheimer’s disease. Acta Neuropathologica 2019;137(1):89-102.
Woollacott, I. O. C. et al. Cerebrospinal fluid soluble TREM2 levels in frontotemporal dementia differ by genetic and pathological subgroup. Alzheimer’s Res. Ther. 2018; 10(1):79.
Roos, P. et al. Inflammatory markers of CHMP2B-mediated frontotemporal dementia. J. Neuroimmunol. 2018; 324: 136–142.