Scientists who work in the pharmaceutical industry have seen this time and time again: A candidate drug that works brilliantly in laboratory animals fails to work in human trials. So what’s up with this?
Now a research consortium from the University of Bonn and the biomedical company Life & Brain GmbH has shown that animal models of Alzheimer’s disease fail to recapitulate the results observed with cultured human nerve cells made from stem cells. Thus, they conclude that candidate Alzheimer’s disease drugs should be tested in human nerve cells rather than laboratory animals.
In the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease beta-amyloid protein deposits form that are deleterious to nerve cells. Scientists who work for drug companies are trying to find compounds that prevent the formation of these deposits. In laboratory mice that have a form of Alzheimer’s disease, over-the-counter drugs called NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), which include such population agents as aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, Nuprin and so on prevent the formation of beta-amyloid deposits. However in clinical trials, the NSAIDs royally flopped (see Jaturapatporn D, Isaac MG, McCleery J, Tabet N. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Feb 15;2:CD006378).
Professor Oliver Brüstle, the director of the Institute for Reconstructive Neurobiology at the University of Bonn and Chief Executive Officer of Life and Brain GmbH, said, “The reasons for these negative results have remained unclear for a long time.”
Jerome Mertens, a former member of Professor Brüstle’s research, and the lead author on this work, said, “Remarkably, these compounds were never tested directly on the actual target cells – the human neuron.”
The reason for this disparity is not difficult to understand because purified human neurons were very difficult to acquire. However, advances in stem cell biology have largely solved this problem, since patient-specific induced pluripotent stem cells can be grow in large numbers and differentiated into neurons in large numbers.
Using this technology, Brüstle and his collaborators from the University of Leuven in Belgium have made nerve cells from human patients. These cells were then used to test the ability of NSAIDs to prevent the formation of beta-amyloid deposits.
According to Philipp Koch, who led this study, “To predict the efficacy of Alzheimer drugs, such tests have to be performed directly on the affected human nerve cells.”
Nerve cells made from human induced pluripotent stem cells were completely resistant to NSAIDs. These drugs showed no ability to alter the biochemical mechanisms in these cells that eventually lead to the production of beta-amyloid.
Why then did they work in laboratory animals? Koch and his colleagues think that biochemical differences between laboratory mice and human cells allow the drugs to work in one but not in the other. In Koch’s words, “The results are simply not transferable.”
In the future, scientists hope to screen potential Alzheimer’s disease drugs with human cells made from the patient’s own cells.
“The development of a single drug takes an average of ten years,” said Brüstle. “By using patient-specific nerve cells as a test system, investments by pharmaceutical companies and the tedious search for urgently needed Alzheimer’s medications could be greatly streamlined.”