Targeting the ensemble of heterogeneous tau oligomers in cells: A novel small molecule screening platform for tauopathies

Chih Hung Lo, Colin Kin Wye Lim, Zhipeng Ding, Sanjula P. Wickramasinghe, Anthony R. Braun, Karen H. Ashe, Elizabeth Rhoades, David D. Thomas, Jonathan N. Sachs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

2 Scopus citations


Objective: Understanding the heterogeneous pathology in Alzheimer's disease and related tauopathies is one of the most urgent and fundamental challenges facing the discovery of novel disease-modifying therapies. Through monitoring ensembles of toxic and nontoxic tau oligomers spontaneously formed in cells, our biosensor technology can identify tool compounds that modulate tau oligomer structure and toxicity, providing much needed insight into the nature and properties of toxic tau oligomers. Background: Tauopathies are a group of neurodegenerative disorders characterized by pathologic aggregation of the microtubule binding protein tau. Recent studies suggest that tau oligomers are the primary toxic species in tauopathies. New/Updated Hypothesis: We hypothesize that tau biosensors capable of monitoring tau oligomer conformation are able to identify tool compounds that modulate the structure and conformation of these tau assemblies, providing key insight into the unique structural fingerprints of toxic tau oligomers. These fingerprints will provide gravely needed biomarker profiles to improve staging of early tauopathy pathology and generate lead compounds for potential new therapeutics. Our time-resolved fluorescence resonance energy transfer biosensors provide us an exquisitely sensitive technique to monitor minute structural changes in monomer and oligomer conformation. In this proof-of-concept study, we identified a novel tool compound, MK-886, which directly binds tau, perturbs the conformation of toxic tau oligomers, and rescues tau-induced cytotoxicity. Furthermore, we show that MK-886 alters the conformation of tau monomer at the proline-rich and microtubule binding regions, stabilizing an on-pathway oligomer. Major Challenges for the Hypothesis: Our approach monitors changes in the ensemble of assemblies that are spontaneously formed in cells but does not specifically isolate or enrich unique toxic tau species. However, time-resolved fluorescence resonance energy transfer does not provide high-resolution, atomic scale information, requiring additional experimental techniques to resolve the structural features stabilized by different tool compounds. Linkage to Other Major Theories: Our biosensor technology is broadly applicable to other areas of tauopathy therapeutic development. These biosensors can be readily modified for different isoforms of tau, specific post-translational modifications, and familial Alzheimer's disease–associated mutations. We are eager to explore tau interactions with chaperone proteins, monitor cross-reactivity with other intrinsically disordered proteins, and target seeded oligomer pathology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1489-1502
Number of pages14
JournalAlzheimer's and Dementia
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2019


  • Conformational ensembles
  • Fibrillation kinetics
  • Heterogeneous tau oligomers
  • Small-molecule inhibitors
  • Tau oligomerization
  • Time-resolved FRET

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

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