Twenty years ago, Wolfe, Xia, and Selkoe identified two aspartate residues in Alzheimer's presenilin protein that constitute the active site of the γ-secretase complex. Mutations in the genes encoding amyloid precursor protein (APP) or presenilin (PS) cause early onset familial Alzheimer's disease (AD), and sequential cleavages of the APP by β-secretase and γ-secretase/presenilin generate amyloid β protein (Aβ), the major component of pathological hallmark, neuritic plaques, in brains of AD patients. Therapeutic strategies centered on targeting γ-secretase/presenilin to reduce amyloid were implemented and led to several high profile clinical trials. This review article focuses on the studies of γ-secretase and its inhibitors/modulators since the discovery of presenilin as the γ-secretase. While a lack of complete understanding of presenilin biology renders failure of clinical trials, the lessons learned from some γ-secretase modulators, while premature for human testing, provide new directions to develop potential therapeutics. Imbalanced Aβ homeostasis is an upstream event of neurodegenerative processes. Exploration of γ-secretase modulators for their roles in these processes is highly significant, e.g., decreasing neuroinflammation and levels of phosphorylated tau, the component of the other AD pathological hallmark, neurofibrillary tangles. Agents with excellent human pharmacology hold great promise in suppressing neurodegeneration in pre-symptomatic or early stage AD patients.
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