Repurposing FDA-approved drugs for Alzheimer’s disease has for many years been a dream among researchers. Now this dream has led Yadong Huang and Marina Sirota, University of California, San Francisco, to an unlikely candidate—the diuretic bumetanide. In the October 11 Nature Aging, they reported that this commonly prescribed medicine reverses transcriptomic changes in human and mouse neurons expressing APOE4. Bumetanide cut the number of amyloid plaques in APOE4 knock-in mice, strengthened synapses, and improved memory. Intriguingly, older people taking the drug to reduce edema were less likely to have AD, even after controlling for hypertension. Huang is planning an AD clinical trial, which he hopes to begin in mid-2022.
- Drug repurposing found bumetanide reversed transcription signatures driven by APOE4.
- People over 65 taking this diuretic were less likely to have AD.
- A clinical trial in AD is slated to start next year.
“This is a great example of a precision-medicine approach, using data-driven methodology for proof-of-concept drug repurposing in AD,” Jean Yuan, National Institute on Aging, Bethesda, Maryland, told Alzforum. Zac Gerring, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Brisbane, Australia, agreed. “It’s great to see such a comprehensive drug-repurposing study where the authors provide a compelling case for bumetanide in AD,” he wrote to Alzforum (full comment below).
Howard Feldman, University of California, San Diego, also thinks the study is impressive. “The authors have provided this excellent roadmap for repurposing a drug that follows a target-specific approach, whether or not bumetanide eventually fulfills clinical promise,” he wrote to Alzforum (full comment below).
Drug repurposing has been tried before in AD, and never worked. More recently, such research has focused on identifying molecules that alter molecular signatures of cells carrying AD risk genes (Xu et al., 2021; Peng et al., 2020). In this study, the authors focused on APOE4, the strongest genetic risk factor for sporadic AD.
First author Alice Taubes and colleagues began by looking for any AD gene-expression signature that might be driven by ApoE4. They searched a gene-expression database built from cortical transcriptomes of 97 people who had had AD and 116 controls. Compared to E4/4 cognitively healthy controls, carriers with AD had 235 differently expressed genes.
With this E4 AD signature in hand, the scientists went in search of chemicals that would flip it back to a more E3-like state. They turned to another database called the Connectivity Map. Built by researchers at MIT, CMap connects more than 1,300 FDA-approved drugs to transcriptomic changes in cancer cells (Oct 2006 news). “Though not brain cells, they were a starting point,” Sirota said. “Many have argued the Connectivity Map is not appropriate for brain-related diseases, but these results suggest otherwise,” Gerring wrote. Using CMap, he recently identified classes of drugs that change expression modules associated with AD risk alleles (Gerring et al., 2021).
In CMap, the authors looked for drugs that increased expression of downregulated genes in the E4 signature, or decreased expression of upregulated genes. Bumetanide, used to treat edema associated with heart, liver, or kidney failure, was the fourth-most-effective transcriptome-flipping drug (see image at left). Huang said they chose to study bumetanide further because it is safe for long-term use and has evidence of crossing the blood-brain barrier. Feldman noted that the drug has been tested in other brain diseases, such as neonatal seizures and autism, due to its putative GABAergic inhibition (Zhang et al., 2020; Soul et al., 2021; Kharod et al., 2019).
Taubes and colleagues found that bumetanide similarly reversed the signatures of cultured human excitatory, inhibitory, and dopaminergic neurons derived from APOE4/4-induced pluripotent stem cells.
What about in vivo? The researchers treated 16-month-old APOE4/4 knock-in mice with 0.2 mg per kg of the drug for eight weeks. RNA-seq indicated that the APOE4 transcriptome had flipped in many cell types, not just neurons (see image below).
Aged APOE4 knock-in mice have a memory deficit and weak long-term potentiation (LTP), a proxy for neuron plasticity. Bumetanide reversed these phenotypes. Treated APOE4 knock-ins better remembered where the platform was in a water maze than their untreated counterparts and, in hippocampal slices from treated mice, LTP appeared normal.
To see whether bumetanide affects amyloid load, Taubes crossed APOE4/4 knock-ins with J20 mice, which develop plaques by 6 months of age, then treated 10-month-old offspring with 0.2 mg per kg of bumetanide for 12 weeks. Here, too, the drug flipped transcriptomes of various brain cell types, restored LTP in hippocampal slices, and reduced the number of plaques.
Preventing Plaques. Bumetanide-treated APOE4/J20 mice (right) had fewer amyloid deposits in the hippocampus and cortex than did controls (left). [Courtesy of Taubes et al., Nature Aging, 2021.]
How bumetanide might spur these changes is unclear. The authors do not believe it is simply by reducing plaque load. In both human cells and animal models, the scientists found consistent changes in pathways governing GABAergic signaling, circadian entrainment, and morphine addiction—none of which have any immediate link to plaques. Jeffrey Cummings, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, noted that these pathways are not even commonly implicated in AD. “Bumetanide worked as well in mice with or without amyloid, so its mechanism may not be specific to AD,” he wrote.
To see if these bumetanide effects translate to the real world, the researchers searched electronic health records from the University of California, San Francisco, and the Mount Sinai Health System in New York. They were trying to determine if people taking this drug for other indications are also protected from developing AD. Comparing 3,751 people over 65 who are on the drug with 7,502 age- and sex-matched controls, the researchers found that the prevalence of AD among the former was 35 percent lower in the Californian cohort, and a whopping 75 percent lower in the New York cohort. This finding held when Taubes compared people taking bumetanide with those taking a different diuretic, ruling out mere lowering of blood pressure, a leading risk factor for dementia, as the operative explanation (Aug 2018 conference news).
Huang is talking with clinicians and FDA scientists about testing bumetanide for AD. He hopes to enroll both APOE4/4 and APOE3/4 carriers in a clinical trial to begin next year.—Chelsea Weidman Burke
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Research Models Citations
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- Taubes A, Nova P, Zalocusky KA. Experimental and real-world evidence supporting the computational repurposing of bumetanide for APOE4-related Alzheimer’s disease. Nature Aging, 1, 2021, pp. 932–47. Nat Aging.
- Li Z, Zhao N. A water pill against Alzheimer’s disease. Nature Aging, 1, 2021, pp.868-9. Nat Aging.