The CD33 short isoform is a gain-of-function variant that enhances Aβ 1-42 phagocytosis in microglia

Mol Neurodegener. 2021 Mar 25;16(1):19. doi: 10.1186/s13024-021-00443-6.


Background: CD33 is genetically linked to Alzheimer's disease (AD) susceptibility through differential expression of isoforms in microglia. The role of the human CD33 short isoform (hCD33m), preferentially encoded by an AD-protective CD33 allele (rs12459419T), is unknown. Here, we test whether hCD33m represents a loss-of-function or gain-of-function variant.

Methods: We have developed two models to test the role of hCD33m. The first is a new strain of transgenic mice expressing hCD33m in the microglial cell lineage. The second is U937 cells where the CD33 gene was disrupted by CRISPR/Cas9 and complemented with different variants of hCD33. Primary microglia and U937 cells were tested in phagocytosis assays and single cell RNA sequencing (scRNAseq) was carried out on the primary microglia. Furthermore, a new monoclonal antibody was developed to detect hCD33m more efficiently.

Results: In both primary microglia and U937 cells, we find that hCD33m enhances phagocytosis. This contrasts with the human CD33 long isoform (hCD33M) that represses phagocytosis, as previously demonstrated. As revealed by scRNAseq, hCD33m+ microglia are enriched in a cluster of cells defined by an upregulated expression and gene regulatory network of immediate early genes, which was further validated within microglia in situ. Using a new hCD33m-specific antibody enabled hCD33m expression to be examined, demonstrating a preference for an intracellular location. Moreover, this newly discovered gain-of-function role for hCD33m is dependent on its cytoplasmic signaling motifs, dominant over hCD33M, and not due to loss of glycan ligand binding.

Conclusions: These results provide strong support that hCD33m represents a gain-of-function isoform and offers insight into what it may take to therapeutically capture the AD-protective CD33 allele.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; CD33; Gain-of-function; Immunomodulatory; Isoform; Microglia; Mouse model; Phagocytosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alleles
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • CRISPR-Cas Systems
  • Crosses, Genetic
  • Female
  • Gain of Function Mutation
  • Gene Editing
  • Gene Regulatory Networks
  • Genes, Immediate-Early
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Microglia / physiology*
  • Peptide Fragments / metabolism*
  • Phagocytosis / genetics*
  • Polysaccharides / metabolism
  • Protein Isoforms / genetics
  • Protein Isoforms / physiology
  • RNA-Seq
  • Sialic Acid Binding Ig-like Lectin 3 / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Sialic Acid Binding Ig-like Lectin 3 / genetics*
  • Sialic Acid Binding Ig-like Lectin 3 / physiology
  • Single-Cell Analysis
  • U937 Cells


  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • CD33 protein, human
  • Peptide Fragments
  • Polysaccharides
  • Protein Isoforms
  • Sialic Acid Binding Ig-like Lectin 3
  • amyloid beta-protein (1-42)

Grant support