Background: We describe molecular processes that can facilitate pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease (AD) by analyzing the catalytic cycle of a membrane-imbedded protease γ-secretase, from the initial interaction with its C99 substrate to the final release of toxic Aβ peptides.
Results: The C-terminal AICD fragment is cleaved first in a pre-steady-state burst. The lowest Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio is observed in pre-steady-state when Aβ40 is the dominant product. Aβ42 is produced after Aβ40, and therefore Aβ42 is not a precursor for Aβ40. The longer more hydrophobic Aβ products gradually accumulate with multiple catalytic turnovers as a result of interrupted catalytic cycles. Saturation of γ-secretase with its C99 substrate leads to 30% decrease in Aβ40 with concomitant increase in the longer Aβ products and Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio. To different degree the same changes in Aβ products can be observed with two mutations that lead to an early onset of AD, ΔE9 and G384A. Four different lines of evidence show that γ-secretase can bind and cleave multiple substrate molecules in one catalytic turnover. Consequently depending on its concentration, NotchΔE substrate can activate or inhibit γ-secretase activity on C99 substrate. Multiple C99 molecules bound to γ-secretase can affect processive cleavages of the nascent Aβ catalytic intermediates and facilitate their premature release as the toxic membrane-imbedded Aβ-bundles.
Conclusions: Gradual saturation of γ-secretase with its substrate can be the pathogenic process in different alleged causes of AD. Thus, competitive inhibitors of γ-secretase offer the best chance for a successful therapy, while the noncompetitive inhibitors could even facilitate development of the disease by inducing enzyme saturation at otherwise sub-saturating substrate. Membrane-imbedded Aβ-bundles generated by γ-secretase could be neurotoxic and thus crucial for our understanding of the amyloid hypothesis and AD pathogenesis.