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Title:  Methods for using elk-L to enhance neuronal survival

United States Patent:  6,540,992

Issued:  April 1, 2003

Inventors:  Lyman; Stewart (Seattle, WA); Beckmann; M. Patricia (Poulsbo, WA); Baum; Peter R. (Seattle, WA); Carpenter; Melissa K. (Issaquah, WA)

Assignee:  Genentech, Inc. (South San Francisco, CA)

Appl. No.:  039642

Filed:  March 16, 1998


Elk ligand (Elk-L) polypeptides as well as DNA sequences, vectors and transformed host cells useful in providing elk-L polypeptides are used in methods for enhancing the survival or inhibiting the death of neurons, particularly hippocampal neurons. The elk-L polypeptides bind to a cell surface receptor that is a member of the tyrosine kinase receptor family.


A cDNA encoding a novel protein ligand that binds to the rat cell surface protein known as elk has been isolated in accordance with the present invention. Also provided are expression vectors comprising the elk ligand (elk-L) cDNA and methods for producing recombinant elk-L polypeptides by cultivating host cells containing the expression vectors under conditions appropriate for expression of elk-L, and recovering the expressed elk-L. Purified elk-L protein is also encompassed by the present invention, including soluble forms of the protein comprising the extracellular domain.

The present invention also provides elk-L or antigenic fragments thereof that can act as immunogens to generate antibodies specific to the elk-L immunogens. Monoclonal antibodies specific for elk-L or antigenic fragments thereof thus can be prepared.

The novel cytokine disclosed herein is a ligand for elk, a rat cell surface receptor that is a member of the tyrosine kinase receptor family. Binding of elk-L to elk on the cell surface is believed to initiate a biological signal mediated by elk. One use of the elk ligand of the present invention is as a research tool for studying the nature of this biological signal and the role that elk-L, in conjunction with elk, may play in growth or differentiation of cells bearing the elk receptor. Expression of elk mRNA has been detected in the brain and testis of rats (Lhotok et al., supra), and the possibility that elk is capable of oncogenic activation has been suggested (Letwin et al., supra). The elk-L polypeptides of the present invention also may be employed in in vitro assays for detection of elk or elk-L or the interactions thereof. The human elk-L disclosed herein also finds use in identifying the putative human homolog of rat elk.

The elk-L protein exhibits neuroprotective and neurotrophic properties, as described in example 10. In one embodiment of the invention, elk-L inhibits neuronal death caused at least in part by the mechanism known as excitotoxicity. The use of elk-L in treating neurodegenerative diseases or injury to neurons is described in more detail below.

To identify cells suitable for use as nucleic acid sources in the cloning attempt, over 30 different types of murine and human cells were screened for the ability to bind elk (in the form of a fusion protein comprising rat elk and an antibody Fc polypeptide). As described in example 2, none of the cell types exhibited detectable elk binding. Since placental tissue is rich in growth and differentiation factors, a human placental cDNA expression library was screened with rat elk/Fc in an attempt to isolate an elk-L clone. Although it was not known whether or not placenta expressed an elk-L, and the ability of rat elk to bind to human elk-L also was unknown, human elk-L cDNA was successfully isolated as described in example 3. The DNA sequence and encoded amino acid sequence of the coding region of a human elk-L cDNA clone are set forth in SEQ ID NO:1 and SEQ ID NO:2.

Human elk-L cDNA comprising the coding region was isolated from the positive clone and inserted into the Sma I site (in the multiple cloning site region of cloning vector pBLUESCRIPT.RTM. SK(-), available from Stratagene Cloning Systems, La Jolla, Calif. The resulting recombinant vector, designated tele 7 in pBLUESCRIPT.RTM. SK(-), in E. coli DH5.alpha. cells, was deposited with the American Type Culture Collection on Oct. 9, 1992, and assigned accession no. ATCC 69085. The deposit was made under the terms of the Budapest Treaty.

Comparison of both the nucleotide and encoded amino acid sequences of the human elk-L cDNA clone with the Genbank and Swissport databases showed that the sequence of the elk ligand was unique. One amino acid sequence was identified in this search that did share limited sequence identity with the elk ligand. That sequence was for the B61 protein, which has previously been identified as the product of a novel immediate-early response gene induced by TNF in human umbilical vein endothelial cells (Holzman et al., Mol. Cell. Biol. 10:5830, 1990). All four of the cysteine residues in the extracellular domain of the two proteins are conserved, and the overall amino acid identity between human elk-L and B61 is 33%. In contrast to the elk ligand, the B61 protein has been reported to be secreted, but terminates with a hydrophobic tail and has been suggested to be associated with the membrane through a glycosylphosphatidyl inositol linkage (Holzman et al., supra). The function of the B61 protein is unknown.

The term "elk-L" as used herein refers to a genus of polypeptides which are capable of binding elk. Human elk-L is within the scope of the present invention, as are elk-L proteins derived from other mammalian species including but not limited to murine, rat, bovine, porcine, or various primate cells. As used herein, the term "elk-L" includes membrane-bound proteins (comprising a cytoplasmic domain, a transmembrane region, and an extracellular domain) as well as truncated proteins that retain the elk-binding property. Such truncated proteins include, for example, soluble elk-L comprising only the extracellular (receptor binding) domain.

The human elk-L cDNA may be radiolabeled and used as a probe to isolate other mammalian elk-L cDNAs by cross-species hybridization. For example, a cDNA library prepared from placental tissue of other mammalian species may be screened with radiolabeled human elk-L cDNA to isolate a positive clone. Alternatively, mRNAs isolated from various cell lines can be screened by Northern hybridization to determine a suitable source of mammalian elk-L mRNA for use in cloning an elk-L gene.

Although an elk/Fc fusion protein was employed in the screening procedure described in Example 3 below, elk can be used to screen clones and candidate cell lines for expression of elk-L proteins. The elk/Fc fusion protein, however, offers the advantage of being easily purified. In addition, disulfide bonds form between the Fc regions of two separate fusion protein chains, creating dimers. The dimeric elk/Fc receptor was chosen for the potential advantage of higher affinity binding of the elk ligand, in view of the possibility that the ligand being sought would be multimeric.

Other antibody Fc regions may be substituted for the human IgG1 Fc region described in Example 1. Other suitable Fc regions are those that can bind with high affinity to protein A or protein G, and include the Fc region of murine IgG1 or fragments of the human IgG1 Fc region, e.g., fragments comprising at least the hinge region so that interchain disulfide bonds will form.

One embodiment of the present invention provides soluble elk-L polypeptides. Soluble elk-L polypeptides comprise all or part of the extracellular domain of a native elk-L but lack the transmembrane region that would cause retention of the polypeptide on a cell membrane. Soluble elk-L polypeptides advantageously comprise the native (or a heterologous) signal peptide when initially synthesized to promote secretion, but the signal peptide is cleaved upon secretion of elk-L from the cell. The soluble elk-L polypeptides that may be employed retain the ability to bind the elk receptor. Soluble elk-L may also include part of the transmembrane region or part of the cytoplasmic domain or other sequences, provided that the soluble elk-L protein is capable of being secreted.

Soluble elk-L may be identified (and distinguished from its non-soluble membrane-bound counterparts) by separating intact cells which express the desired protein from the culture medium, e.g., by centrifugation, and assaying the medium (supernatant) for the presence of the desired protein. The presence of elk-L in the medium indicates that the protein was secreted from the cells and thus is a soluble form of the desired protein. Soluble elk-L may be a naturally-occurring form of this protein.

The use of soluble forms of elk-L is advantageous for certain applications. Purification of the proteins from recombinant host cells is facilitated, since the soluble proteins are secreted from the cells. Further, soluble proteins are generally more suitable for intravenous administration.

Examples of soluble elk-L polypeptides include those comprising the entire extracellular domain of a native elk-L protein. One such soluble elk-L protein comprises amino acids 1 (Ala) through 213 (Lys) of SEQ ID NO:2. When initially expressed within a host cell, the soluble protein may additionally comprise one of the heterologous signal peptides described below that is functional within the host cells employed. Alternatively, the protein may comprise the native signal peptide, such that the elk-L comprises amino acids -24 (Met) through 213 (Lys) of SEQ ID NO:2. In one embodiment of the invention, soluble elk-L is initially expressed as a fusion protein comprising (from N- to C-terminus) the yeast a factor signal peptide, the FLAG.RTM. peptide (SEQ ID NO:3) described below and in U.S. Pat. No. 5,011,912, and soluble elk-L comprising amino acids 1-213 of SEQ ID NO:2. This recombinant fusion protein is expressed in and secreted from yeast cells. The FLAG.RTM. peptide (SEQ ID NO:3) facilitates purification of the protein, and subsequently may be cleaved from the soluble elk-L using bovine mucosal enterokinase. DNA sequences encoding soluble elk-L proteins are encompassed by the present invention.

Truncated elk-L, including soluble polypeptides, may be prepared by any of a number of conventional techniques. A desired DNA sequence may be chemically synthesized using known techniques. DNA fragments also may be produced by restriction endonuclease digestion of a full length cloned DNA sequence, and isolated by electrophoresis on agarose gels. Linkers containing restriction endonuclease cleavage site(s) may be employed to insert the desired DNA fragment into an expression vector, or the fragment may be digested at cleavage sites naturally present therein. The well known polymerase chain reaction procedure also may be employed to isolate a DNA sequence encoding a desired protein fragment. As a further alternative, known mutagenesis techniques may be employed to insert a stop codon at a desired point, e.g., immediately downstream of the codon for the last amino acid of the extracellular domain.

In another approach, enzymatic treatment (e.g., using Bal 31 exonuclease) may be employed to delete terminal nucleotides from a DNA fragment to obtain a fragment having a particular desired terminus. Among the commercially available linkers are those that can be ligated to the blunt ends produced by Bal 31 digestion, and which contain restriction endonuclease cleavage site(s). Alternatively, oligonucleotides that reconstruct the N- or C-terminus of a DNA fragment to a desired point may be synthesized. The oligonucleotide may contain a restriction endonuclease cleavage site upstream of the desired coding sequence and position an initiation codon (ATG) at the N-terminus of the coding sequence.

The present invention provides purified elk-L polypeptides, both recombinant and non-recombinant. Variants and derivatives of native elk-L proteins that retain the desired biological activity (e.g., the ability to bind elk) are also within the scope of the present invention. elk-L variants may be obtained by mutations of nucleotide sequences coding for native elk-L polypeptides. An elk-L variant, as referred to herein, is a polypeptide substantially homologous to a native elk-L, but which has an amino acid sequence different from that of native elk-L (human, murine or other mammalian species) because of one or more deletions, insertions or substitutions.

The variant amino acid sequence preferably is at least 80% identical to a native elk-L amino acid sequence, most preferably at least 90% identical. The percent identity may be determined, for example, by comparing sequence information using the GAP computer program, version 6.0 described by Devereux et al. (Nucl. Acids Res. 12:387, 1984) and available from the University of Wisconsin Genetics Computer Group (UWGCG). The GAP program utilizes the alignment method of Needleman and Wunsch (J. Mol. Biol. 48:443, 1970), as revised by Smith and Waterman (Adv. Appl. Math 2:482, 1981). The preferred default parameters for the GAP program include: (1) a unary comparison matrix (containing a value of 1 for identities and 0 for non-identities) for nucleotides, and the weighted comparison matrix of Gribskov and Burgess, Nucl. Acids Res. 14:6745, 1986, as described by Schwartz and Dayhoff, eds., Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure, National Biomedical Research Foundation, pp. 353-358, 1979; (2) a penalty of 3.0 for each gap and an additional 0.10 penalty for each symbol in each gap; and (3) no penalty for end gaps.

Alterations of the native amino acid sequence may be accomplished by any of a number of known techniques. Mutations can be introduced at particular loci by synthesizing oligonucleotides containing a mutant sequence, flanked by restriction sites enabling ligation to fragments of the native sequence. Following ligation, the resulting reconstructed sequence encodes an analog having the desired amino acid insertion, substitution, or deletion.

Alternatively, oligonucleotide-directed site-specific mutagenesis procedures can be employed to provide an altered gene having particular codons altered according to the substitution, deletion, or insertion required. Exemplary methods of making the alterations set forth above are disclosed by Walder et al. (Gene 42:133, 1986); Bauer et al. (Gene 37:73, 1985); Craik (BioTechniques, January 1985, 12-19); Smith et al. (Genetic Engineering: Principles and Methods, Plenum Press, 1981); Kunkel (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 82:488, 1985); Kunkel et al. (Methods in Enzymol. 154:367, 1987); and U.S. Pat. Nos. 4,518,584 and 4,737,462, which are incorporated by reference herein.

Variants may comprise conservatively substituted sequences, meaning that a given amino acid residue is replaced by a residue having similar physiochemical characteristics. Examples of conservative substitutions include substitution of one aliphatic residue for another, such as Ile, Val, Leu, or Ala for one another, or substitutions of one polar residue for another, such as between Lys and Arg; Glu and Asp; or Gln and Asn. Other such conservative substitutions, for example, substitutions of entire regions having similar hydrophobicity characteristics, are well known.

elk-L also may be modified to create elk-L derivatives by forming covalent or aggregative conjugates with other chemical moieties, such as glycosyl groups, lipids, phosphate, acetyl groups and the like. Covalent derivatives of elk-L may be prepared by linking the chemical moieties to functional groups on elk-L amino acid side chains or at the N-terminus or C-terminus of a elk-L polypeptide or the extracellular domain thereof. Other derivatives of elk-L within the scope of this invention include covalent or aggregative conjugates of elk-L or its fragments with other proteins or polypeptides, such as by synthesis in recombinant culture as N-terminal or C-terminal fusions. For example, the conjugate may comprise a signal or leader polypeptide sequence (e.g. the .alpha.-factor leader of Saccharomyces) at the N-terminus of a elk-L polypeptide. The signal or leader peptide co-translationally or post-translationally directs transfer of the conjugate from its side of synthesis to a site inside or outside of the cell membrane or cell wall.

elk-L polypeptide fusions can comprise peptides added to facilitate purification and identification of elk-L. Such peptides include, for example, poly-His or the antigenic identification peptides described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,011,912 and in Hopp et al., Bio/Technology 6:1204, 1998. One such peptide is the FLAG.RTM. peptide, Asp-Tyr-Lys-Asp-Asp-Asp-Asp-Lys (DYKDDDDK) (SEQ ID NO:3), which is highly antigenic and provides an epitope reversibly bound by a specific monoclonal antibody enabling rapid assay and facile purification of expressed recombinant protein. This sequence is also specifically cleaved by bovine mucosal enterokinase at the residue immediately following the Asp-Lys pairing. Fusion proteins capped with this peptide may also be resistant to intracellular degradation in E. coli. A murine hybridoma designated 4E 11 produces a monoclonal antibody that binds the peptide DYKDDDDK (SEQ ID NO:3) in the presence of certain divalent metal cations (as described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,011,912, hereby incorporated by reference) and has been deposited with the American Type Culture Collection under accession no. HB 9259.

The present invention further includes elk-L polypeptides with or without associated native-pattern glycosylation. elk-L expressed in yeast or mammalian expression systems (e.g., COS-7 cells) may be similar to or significantly different from a native elk-L polypeptide in molecular weight and glycosylation pattern, depending upon the choice of expression system. Expression of elk-L polypeptides in bacterial expression systems, such as E. coli, provides non-glycosylated molecules.

DNA constructs that encode various additions or substitutions of amino acid residues or sequences, or deletions of terminal or internal residues or sequences not needed for biological activity or binding can be prepared. For example, N-glycosylation sites in the elk-L extracellular domain can be modified to preclude glycosylation, allowing expression of a more homogeneous, reduced carbohydrate analog in mammalian and yeast expression systems. N-glycosylation sites in eukaryotic polypeptides are characterized by an amino acid triplet Asn-X-Y, wherein X is any amino acid except Pro and Y is Ser or Thr. The human elk-L protein comprises one such triplet, at amino acids 115-117 of SEQ ID NO:2. Appropriate modifications to the nucleotide sequence encoding this triplet will result in substitutions, additions or deletions that prevent attachment of carbohydrate residues at the Asn side chain. Alteration of a single nucleotide, chosen so that Asn is replaced by a different amino acid, for example, is sufficient to inactivate an N-glycosylation site. Known procedures for inactivating N-glycosylation sites in proteins include those described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,071,972 and EP 276,846, hereby incorporated by reference.

In another example, sequences encoding Cys residues that are not essential for biological activity can be altered to cause the Cys residues to be deleted or replaced with other amino acids, preventing formation of incorrect intramolecular disulfide bridges upon renaturation. Other variants are prepared by modification of adjacent dibasic amino acid residues to enhance expression in yeast systems in which KEX2 protease activity is present. EP 212,914 discloses the use of site-specific mutagenesis to inactivate KEX2 protease processing sites in a protein. KEX2 protease processing sites are inactivated by deleting, adding or substituting residues to alter Arg-Arg, Arg-Lys, and Lys-Arg pairs to eliminate the occurrence of these adjacent basic residues. Lys-Lys pairings are considerably less susceptible to KEX2 cleavage, and conversion of Arg-Lys or Lys-Arg to Lys-Lys represents a conservative and preferred approach to inactivating KEX2 sites. Human elk-L contains three KEX2 protease processing sites at amino acids 242-243, 243-244, and 246-247 of SEQ ID NO:2.

Naturally occurring elk-L variants are also encompassed by the present invention. Examples of such variants are proteins that result from alternative mRNA splicing events or from proteolytic cleavage of the elk-L protein, wherein the elk-binding property is retained. Alternative splicing of mRNA may yield a truncated but biologically active elk-L protein, such as a naturally occurring soluble form of the protein, for example. Variations attributable to proteolysis include, for example, differences in the N- or C-termini upon expression in different types of host cells, due to proteolytic removal of one or more terminal amino acids from the elk-L protein (generally from 1-5 terminal amino acids).

Nucleic acid sequences within the scope of the present invention include isolated DNA and RNA sequences that hybridize to the native elk-L nucleotide sequences disclosed herein under conditions of moderate or severe stringency, and which encode biologically active elk-L. Moderate stringency hybridization conditions refer to conditions described in, for example, Sambrook et al. Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, 2 ed. Vol. 1, pp. 1.101-104, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, (1989). Conditions of moderate stringency, as defined by Sambrook et al., include use of a prewashing solution of 5.times.SSC, 0.5% SDS, 1.0 mM EDTA (pH 8.0) and hybridization conditions of about 55oC., 5.times.SSC, overnight. Conditions of severe stringency include higher temperatures of hybridization and washing. The skilled artisan will recognize that the temperature and wash solution salt concentration may be adjusted as necessary according to factors such as the length of the probe.

Due to the known degeneracy of the genetic code wherein more than one codon can encode the same amino acid, a DNA sequence may vary from that presented in SEQ ID NO:1, and still encode an elk-L protein having the amino acid sequence of SEQ ID NO:1. Such variant DNA sequences may result from silent mutations (e.g., occurring during PCR amplification), and may be the product of deliberate mutagenesis of a native sequence.

The present invention thus provides isolated DNA sequences encoding biologically active elk-L, selected from: (a) DNA derived from the coding region of a native mammalian elk-L gene (e.g., cDNA comprising the nucleotide sequence presented in SEQ ID NO:1); (b) DNA capable of hybridization to a DNA of (a) under moderately stringent conditions and which encodes biologically active elk-L; and (c) DNA which is degenerate as a result of the genetic code to a DNA defined in (a) or (b) and which encodes biologically active elk-L. The elk-L proteins encoded by such DNA sequences are encompassed by the present invention.

Examples of elk-L proteins encoded by DNA that varies from the native DNA sequence of SEQ ID NO:1, wherein the variant DNA will hybridize to the native DNA sequence under moderately stringent conditions, include, but are not limited to, elk-L fragments (soluble or membrane-bound) and elk-L proteins comprising inactivated N-glycosylation site(s), inactivated KEX2 protease processing site(s), or conservative amino acid substitution(s), as described above. Elk-L proteins encoded by DNA drived from other mammalian species, wherein the DNA will hybridize to the human DNA of SEQ ID NO:1, are also encompassed.

Variants possessing the requisite ability to bind elk may be identified by any suitable assay. Biological activity of elk-L may be determined, for example, by competition for binding to the ligand binding domain of elk (i.e. competitive binding assays).

One type of a competitive binding assay for elk-L polypeptide uses a radiolabeled, soluble human elk-L and intact cells expressing cell surface elk. Instead of intact cells, one could substitute soluble elk (such as an elk/Fc fusion protein) bound to a solid phase through a Protein A or Protein G interaction with the Fc region of the fusion protein. Another type of competitive binding assay utilizes radiolabeled soluble elk such as an elk/Fc fusion protein, and intact cells expressing elk-L. Alternatively, soluble elk-L could be bound to a solid phase.

Competitive binding assays can be performed using standard methodology. For example, radiolabeled elk-L can be used to compete with a putative elk-L homolog to assay for binding activity against surface-bound elk. Qualitative results can be obtained by competitive autoradiographic plate binding assays, or Scatchard plots may be utilized to generate quantitative results.

Alternatively, soluble elk can be bound to a solid phase such as a column chromatography matrix or a similar substrate suitable for analysis for the presence of a detectable moiety such as 125 I. Binding to a solid phase can be accomplished, for example, by binding an elk/Fc fusion protein to a protein A or protein G-containing matrix.

The binding characteristics of elk-L (including variants) may also be determined using the conjugated, soluble elk (for example, 125 I-elk/Fc) in competition assays similar to those described above. In this case, however, intact cells expressing elk-L, or soluble elk-L bound to a solid substrate, are used to measure the extent to which a sample containing a putative elk variant competes for binding of a conjugated soluble elk to elk-L.

The elk-L of the present invention can be used in a binding assay to detect cells expressing elk. For example, elk-L or an extracellular domain or a fragment thereof can be conjugated to a detectable moiety such as 1251. Radiolabeling with 125 I can be performed by any of several standard methodologies that yield a functional 125 I-elk-L molecule labeled to high specific activity. Alternatively, another detectable moiety such as an enzyme that can catalyze a colorometric or fluorometric reaction, biotin or avidin may be used. Cells to be tested for elk expression can be contacted with labeled elk-L. After incubation, unbound labeled elk-L is removed and binding is measured using the detectable moiety.

The elk ligand proteins disclosed herein also may be employed to measure the biological activity of elk protein in terms of binding affinity for elk-L. To illustrate, elk-L may be employed in a binding affinity study to measure the biological activity of an elk protein that has been stored at different temperatures, or produced in different cell types. The biological activity of an elk protein thus can be ascertained before it is used in a research study, for example.

Elk-L proteins find use as reagents that may be employed by those conducting "quality assurance" studies, e.g., to monitor shelf life and stability of elk protein under different conditions. Elk ligands may be used in determining whether biological activity is retained after modification of an elk protein (e.g., chemical modification, truncation, mutation, etc.). The binding affinity of the modified elk protein for an elk-L is compared to that of an unmodified elk protein to detect any adverse impact of the modifications on biological activity of elk.

A different use of an elk ligand is as a reagent in protein purification procedures. Elk-L or elk-L/Fc fusion proteins may be attached to a solid support material by conventional techniques and used to purify elk by affinity chromatography.

The elk-L protein exhibits neuroprotective properties. This property has been demonstrated in an assay in which neural death caused by treatment with glutamate (and believed to involve the mechanism known as excitotoxicity) was inhibited by elk-L. A trophic effect on neurons was also demonstrated, as described in example 10.

One embodiment of the present invention is thus directed to a method of treating disorders of neural tissue, such as injury and chronic or acute neurologic diseases, involving contacting the injured or diseased neurons with elk-L. Elk-L may be administered to a mammal to treat such an injury or disease. In one embodiment of the invention, elk-L is employed in treating an injury or disorder in which excitotoxicity plays a role, as discussed below.

Elk-L exhibits a trophic effect on neurons, whether or not the neurons are injured or afflicted with disease, and can be administered to a mammal to exert a trophic effect on neural tissue. In a patient suffering loss of or damage to neurons due to injury or disease, elk-L can be administered to enhance the viability of those neurons that have survived, regardless of the mechanism by which the loss or damage of neural tissue occurred. Examples of conditions that may be treated with elk-L include, but are not limited to, neuropathies such as diabetic, hereditary, and nutritional neuropathies, neurodegenerative diseases, and other disorders characterized by degeneration or loss of function of neurons.

Elk-L also finds use as a tissue culture reagent. An elk-L protein can be added to neurons cultured in vitro to enhance the viability and prolong the lifespan of the cultured neurons, thus facilitating research studies of neural tissue.

Certain acidic or sulfur-containing amino acids have been demonstrated to depolarize and excite neurons, such that prolonged exposure of neurons to high concentrations of such amino acids results in neural death (Olney et al. Expl. Brain Res. 14:61, 1971). This mechanism of neural death is known as excitotoxicity. A number of receptors for excitatory amino acids have been identified and characterized. In one embodiment of the invention, elk-L is administered to a mammal afflicted with a neurodegenerative condition characterized or mediated, at least in part, by excitotoxicity.

The major excitatory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system (CNS) is glutamate. Responsiveness to glutamate is a normal function in the developing and mature CNS. In addition to its normal role in excitatory synaptic transmission and plasticity, however, glutamate can also mediate or otherwise participate in a number of CNS dysfunctional states, including, but not limited to, measles, Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's Disease, Parkinsonism, stroke (ischemia), epilepsy, and AIDS-related dementia (reviewed in Meldrum and Garthwaite, Trends Pharmacol. Sci. 11:379, 1990; Choi, J. Neurosci. 10:2493, 1990; Lipton et al., Neuron 7:111, 1991; and Andersson et al., Eur. J. Neurosci. 3:66, 1991).

The involvement of an excitotoxic component in ischemic or hypoxic brain damage (e.g., resulting from a stroke) is well established (Choi, Neuron 1:623, 1988). Regarding AIDS related dementia, the HIV envelope glycoprotein gp120 has been suggested to directly or indirectly enhance neuronal sensitivity to glutamate (Lipton, Trends Neurol. Sci. 15:75, 1992). Long term rat and primate models have been developed with excitotoxic insult that closely mimics the behavioral, neurochemical, and pathological defects associated with Huntington's disease (Beal, Ann. Neurol. 31:119, 1992). Deposition of amyloid plaques is a hallmark of Alzheimer's Disease (AD). Demonstration of an enhancing effect of .beta.-amyloid on excitotoxicity in vitro (Koh et al., Brain Res. 533:315, 1990 and Mattson et al., J. Neurosci. 12:376, 1992) has led to the suggestion that .beta.-amyloid potentiates slow excitotoxic neuronal death in vivo in AD patients. The accumulation of amyloid plaques in other conditions, including but not limited to Down's Syndrome and the aging process, likewise suggests a role for excitotoxicity.

Regarding Parkinson's Disease, the compound MPTP (1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine) and its metabolite MPP+ have been used to induce experimental parkinsonism. MPP+ kills dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra, yielding a reasonable model of late parkinsonism. Turski et al., (Nature 349:414, 1991) reported that antagonists of NMDA (an excitatory amino acid receptor) could protect the substantia nigra from MPP+ -mediated toxicity. This result has been confirmed and extended to demonstrate selective damage mediated by MPP+, consistent with excitotoxicity (Storey et al., J. Neurochem. 58:1975, 1992). A role for excitotoxicity in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has been proposed, based on extrapolation from data demonstrating a role for an excitatory amino acid in lathyrism (Spencer et al., Lancet 1:1066, 1986). The role of excitotoxicity in a number of neurological disorders, both acute and chronic, is further discussed in Albin, R. and J. Greenamyre, Neurology 42:733, 1992, and Beal, Current Opinion in Neurobiol. 2:657, 1992).

Several non-exclusive models for the precise mechanism of excitotoxic damage to neurons have been proposed, including aberrant fluxes in intracellular Ca++ leading to death, possibly through a nitric oxide intermediate. The production of free radicals is suggested to play a role in DNA damage leading to death (Garthwaite, Trends Neurol. Sci. 14:60, 1991). Another proposed mechanism involves defects in energy metabolism that cause neuronal death after excitotoxic injury (Lipton, Trends Neurol. Sci. 15:75, 1992). It is recognized that excitotoxic neuronal damage may occur via different mechanisms, depending on the nature of the condition involved. For example, defective receptors for excitatory amino acids may explain certain (e.g., inherited) disorders, whereas disorders characterized by late onset and slow progression may be attributable to impairment of cellular metabolism or membrane potential, wherein excitotoxicity is the final common pathway of neuronal death (Albin and Greenamyre, supra).

The present invention provides pharmaceutical compositions comprising an effective amount of a purified elk-L polypeptide and a suitable diluent, excipient, or carrier. Such carriers will be nontoxic to patients at the dosages and concentrations employed. Ordinarily, the preparation of such compositions entails combining a mammalian elk-L polypeptide or derivative thereof with buffers, antioxidants such as ascorbic acid, low molecular weight (less than about 10 residues) peptides, proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates including glucose, sucrose, or dextrans, chelating agents such as EDTA, glutathione, or other stabilizers and excipients. Neutral buffered saline is one appropriate diluent.

For therapeutic use, the compositions are administered in a manner and dosage appropriate to the indication and the patient. As will be understood by one skilled in the pertinent field, a therapeutically effective dosage will vary according to such factors as the nature and severity of the condition, the location of damaged neural tissue within the body in the case of an injury, and the age, condition and size of the patient. Administration may be by any suitable route, including but not limited to continuous infusion, local infusion during surgery, intraventricular infusion (which may involve use of an intraventricular catheter), sustained release from implants (gels, membranes, and the like), or injection (e.g., injection at the site of an injury or injection into the central nervous system).

The compositions of the present invention may contain an elk-L protein in any form described above, including variants, derivatives, and biologically active fragments thereof. In one embodiment of the invention the composition comprises a soluble human elk-L protein. Such protein may comprise the extracellular domain of human elk-L fused to an Fc polypeptide, as described above.

Elk-L derived from the same mammalian species as the patient is generally preferred for use in pharmaceutical compositions. However, elk-L appears to be highly conserved between species and has demonstrated cross-species reactivity for certain mammalian species.

Oligomeric Forms of Elk-L

Elk-L polypeptides may exist as oligomers, such as dimers or trimers. Oligomers are linked by disulfide bonds formed between cysteine residues on different elk-L polypeptides. In one embodiment of the invention, an elk-L dimer is created by fusing elk-L to the Fc region of an antibody (IgG1) in a manner that does not interfere with binding of elk-L to the elk ligand binding domain. The Fc polypeptide preferably is fused to the C-terminus of a soluble elk-L (comprising only the extracellular domain). Preparation of fusion proteins comprising heterologous polypeptides fused to various portions of antibody-derived polypeptides (including the Fc domain) has been described, e.g., by Ashkenazi et al., (PNAS USA 88:10535, 1991) and Byrn et al., (Nature 344:677, 1990), hereby incorporated by reference. A gene fusion encoding the elk-L/Fc fusion protein is inserted into an appropriate expression vector. The elk-L/Fc fusion proteins are allowed to assembly much like antibody molecules, whereupon interchain disulfide bonds from between Fc polypeptides, yielding divalent elk-L. If fusion proteins are made with both heavy and light chains of an antibody, it is possible to form an elk-L oligomer with as many as four elk-L extracellular regions. Alternatively, one can link two soluble elk-L domains with a peptide linker such as the Gly4 SerGly5 Ser (SEQ ID NO:4) linker sequence described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,073,627.

The present invention provides oligomers of elk-L extracellular domains or fragments thereof, linked by disulfide interactions, or expressed as fusion polymers with or without spacer amino acid linking groups. For example, a dimer of the elk-L extracellular domain can be linked by an IgG Fc region linking group.

Expression Systems

The present invention provides recombinant expression vectors for expression of elk-L, and host cells transformed with the expression vectors. Any suitable expression system may be employed. The vectors include an elk-L DNA sequence operably linked to suitable transcriptional or translational regulatory nucleotide sequences, such as those derived from a mammalian, microbial, viral, or insect gene. Examples of regulatory sequences include transcriptional promoters, operators, or enhancers, an mRNA ribosomal binding site, and appropriate sequences which control transcription and translation initiation and termination. Nucleotide sequences are operably linked when the regulatory sequence functionally relates to the elk-L DNA sequence. Thus, a promoter nucleotide sequence is operably linked to a elk-L DNA sequence if the promoter nucleotide sequence controls the transcription of the elk-L DNA sequence. The ability to replicate in the desired host cells, usually conferred by an origin of replication, and a selection gene by which transformants are identified, may additionally be incorporated into the expression vector.

In addition, sequences encoding appropriate signal peptides that are not native to the elk-L gene can be incorporated into expression vectors. For example, a DNA sequence for a signal peptide (secretory leader) may be fused in frame to the elk-L sequence so that the elk-L is initially translated as a fusion protein comprising the signal peptide. A signal peptide that is functional in the intended host cells enhances extracellular secretion of the elk-L polypeptide. The signal peptide is cleaved from the elk-L polypeptide upon secretion of elk-L from the cell.

Suitable host cells for expression of elk-L polypeptides include prokaryotes, yeast or higher eukaryotic cells. Appropriate cloning and expression vectors for use with bacterial, fungal, yeast, and mammalian cellular hosts are described, for example, in Pouwels et al. Cloning Vectors: A Laboratory Manual, Elsevier, N.Y., (1985). Cell-free translation systems could also be employed to produce elk-L polypeptides using RNAs derived from DNA constructs disclosed herein.

Prokaryotes include gram negative or gram positive organisms, for example, E. coli or Bacilli. Suitable prokaryotic host cells for transformation include, for example, E. coli, Bacillus subtilis, Salmonella typhimurium, and various other species within the genera Pseudomonas, Streptomyces, and Staphylococcus. In a prokaryotic host cell, such as E. coli, an elk-L polypeptide may include an N-terminal methionine residue to facilitate expression of the recombinant polypeptide in the prokaryotic host cell. The N-terminal Met may be cleaved from the expressed recombinant elk-L polypeptide.

Expression vectors for use in prokaryotic host cells generally comprise one or more phenotypic selectable marker genes. A phenotypic selectable marker gene is, for example, a gene encoding a protein that confers antibiotic resistance or that supplies an autotrophic requirement. Examples of useful expression vectors for prokaryotic host cells include those derived from commercially available plasmids such as the cloning vector pBR322 (ATCC 37017). pBR322 contains genes for ampicillin and tetracycline resistance and thus provides simple means for identifying transformed cells. An appropriate promoter and a elk-L DNA sequence are inserted into the pBR322 vector. Other commercially available vectors include, for example, pKK223-3 (Pharmacia Fine Chemicals, Uppsala, Sweden) and pGEM1 (Promeca Biotec, Madison, Wis., USA).

Promoter sequences commonly used for recombinant prokaryotic host cell expression vectors include .beta.-lactamase (penicillinase), lactose promoter system (Chang et al., Nature 275:615, 1978; and Goeddel et al., Nature 281:544, 1979), tryptophan (trp) promoter system (Goeddel et al., Nucl. Acids Res. 8:4057, 1980; and EP-A-36776) and tac promoter (Maniatis, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, p. 412, 1982). A particularly useful prokaryotic host cell expression system employs a phage .lambda. PL promoter and a cI857ts thermolabile repressor sequence. Plasmid vectors available from the American Type Culture Collection which incorporate derivatives of the .lambda. PL promoter include plasmid pHUB2 (resident in E. coli strain JMB9 (ATCC 37092)) and pPLc28 (resident in E. coli RR1 (ATCC 53082)).

elk-L alternatively may be expressed in yeast host cells, preferably from the Saccharomyces genus (e.g., S. cerevisiae). Other genera of yeast, such as Pichia or Kluyveromyces, may also be employed. Yeast vectors will often contain an origin of replication sequence from a yeast plasmid, an autonomously replicating sequence (ARS), a promoter region, sequences for polyadenylation, sequences for transcription termination, and a selectable marker gene. Suitable promoter sequences for yeast vectors include, among others, promoters for metallothionein, 3-phosphoglycerate kinase (Hitzeman et al., J. Biol. Chem. 255:2073, 1980) or other glycolytic enzymes (Hess et al., J. Adv. Enzyme Reg. 7:149, 1968; and Holland et al., Biochem. 17:4900, 1978), such as enolase, glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase, hexokinase, pyruvate decarboxylase, phosphofructokinase, glucose-6-phosphate isomerase, 3-phosphoglycerate mutase, pyruvate kinase, triosephosphate isomerase, phosphoglucose isomerase, and glucolinase. Other suitable vectors and promoters for use in yeast expression are further described in Hitzeman, EPA-73,657. Another alternative is the glucose-repressible ADH2 promoter described by Russell et al. (J. Biol. Chem. 258:2674, 1982) and Beier et al. (Nature 300:724, 1982). Shuttle vectors replicable in both yeast and E. coli may be constructed by inserting DNA sequences from pBR322 for selection and replication in E. coli (Ampr gene and origin of replication) into the above-described yeast vectors.

The yeast .alpha.-factor leader sequence may be employed to direct secretion of the elk-L polypeptide. The .alpha.-factor leader sequence is often inserted between the promoter sequence and the structural gene sequence. See, e.g., Kuran et al., Cell 30:933, 1982; Bitter et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 81:5330, 1984; U.S. Pat. No. 4,546,082; and EP 324,274. Other leader sequences suitable for facilitating secretion of recombinant polypeptides from yeast hosts are known to those of skill in the art. A leader sequence may be modified near its 3' end to contain one or more restriction sites. This will facilitate fusion of the leader sequence to the structural gene.

Yeast transformation protocols are known to those of skill in the art. One such protocol is described by Hinnen et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 75:1929, 1978. The Hinnen et al. protocol selects for Trp+ transformants in a selective medium, wherein the selective medium consists of 0.67% yeast nitrogen base, 0.5% casamino acids, 2% glucose, 10 .mu.g/ml adenine and 20 .mu.g/ml uracil.

Yeast host cells transformed by vectors containing ADH2promoter sequence may be grown for inducing expression in a "rich" medium. An example of a rich medium is one consisting of 1% yeast extract, 2% peptone, and 1% glucose supplemented with 80 .mu.g/ml adenine and 80 .mu.g/ml uracil. Derepression of the ADH2 promoter occurs when glucose is exhausted from the medium.

Mammalian or insect host cell culture systems could also be employed to express recombinant elk-L polypeptides. Baculovirus systems for production of heterologous proteins in insect cells are reviewed by Luckow and Summers, Bio/Technology 6:47 (1988). Established cell lines of mammalian origin also may be employed. Examples of suitable mammalian host cell lines include the COS-7 line of monkey kidney cells (ATCC CRL 1651) (Gluzman et al., Cell 23:175, 1981), L cells, C127 cells, 3T3 cells (ATCC CCL 163), Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells, HeLa cells, and BHK (ATCC CRL 10) cell lines, and the CV-1/EBNA-1 cell line derived from the African green monkey kidney cell line CVI (ATCC CCL 70) as described by McMahan et al. (EMBO J. 10: 2821, 1991).

Transcriptional and translational control sequences for mammalian host cell expression vectors may be excised from viral genomes. Commonly used promoter sequences and enhancer sequences are derived from Polyoma virus, Adenovirus 2, Simian Virus 40 (SV40), and human cytomegalovirus. DNA sequences derived from the SV40 viral genome, for example, SV40 origin, early and late promoter, enhancer, splice, and polyadenylation sites may be used to provide other genetic elements for expression of a structural gene sequence in a mammalian host cell. Viral early and late promoters are particularly useful because both are easily obtained from a viral genome as a fragment which may also contain a viral origin of replication (Fiers et al., Nature 273:113, 1978). Smaller or larger SV40 fragments may also be used, provided the approximately 250 bp sequence extending from the Hind III site toward the Bgl I site located in the SV40 viral origin of replication site is included.

Exemplary expression vectors for use in mammalian host cells can be constructed as disclosed by Okayama and Berg (Mol. Cell. Biol. 3:280, 1983). A useful system for stable high level expression of mammalian cDNAs in C127 murine mammary epithelial cells can be constructed substantially as described by Cosman et al. (Mol. Immunol. 23:935, 1986). A useful high expression vector, PMLSV N1/N4, described by Cosman et al., Nature 312:768, 1984 has been deposited as ATCC 39890. Additional useful mammalian expression vectors are described in EP-A-0367566, and in U.S. patent application Ser. No. 07/701,415, filed May 16, 1991, incorporated by reference herein. The vectors may be derived from retroviruses. In place of the native signal sequence, a heterologous signal sequence may be added, such as the signal sequence for interleukin-7 (IL-7) described in U.S. Pat. No. 4,965,195; the signal sequence for interleukin-2 receptor described in Cosman et al., Nature 312:768 (1984); the interleukin-4 signal peptide described in EP 367,566; the type I interleukin-1 receptor signal peptide described in U.S. Pat. No. 4,968,607; and the type II interleukin-1 receptor signal peptide described in EP 460,846.

Elk Ligand Protein

The present invention provides substantially homogeneous elk-L protein, which may be produced by recombinant expression systems as described above or purified from naturally occurring cells. The elk-L is purified to substantial homogeneity, as indicated by a single protein band upon analysis by SDS-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE).

One process for producing the elk-L protein comprises culturing a host cell transformed with an expression vector comprising a DNA sequence that encodes elk-L under conditions such that elk-L is expressed. The elk-L protein is then recovered from culture medium or cell extracts, depending upon the expression system employed. As the skilled artisan will recognize, procedures for purifying the recombinant elk-L will vary according to such factors as the type of host cells employed and whether or not the elk-L is secreted into the culture medium.

For example, when expression systems that secrete the recombinant protein are employed, the culture medium first may be concentrated using a commercially available protein concentration filter, for example, an Amicon or Millipore Pellicon ultrafiltration unit. Following the concentration step, the concentrate can be applied to a purification matrix such as a gel filtration medium. Alternatively, an anion exchange resin can be employed, for example, a matrix or substrate having pendant diethylaminoethyl (DEAE) groups. The matrices can be acrylamide, agarose, dextran, cellulose or other types commonly employed in protein purification. Alternatively, a cation exchange step can be employed. Suitable cation exchangers include various insoluble matrices comprising sulfopropyl or carboxymethyl groups. Sulfopropyl groups are preferred. Finally, one or more reversed-phase high performance liquid chromatography (RP-HPLC) steps employing hydrophobic RP-HPLC media, (e.g., silica gel having pendant methyl or other aliphatic groups) can be employed to further purify elk-L. Some or all of the foregoing purification steps, in various combinations, can be employed to provide a substantially homogeneous recombinant protein.

It is also possible to utilize an affinity column comprising the ligand binding domain of elk to affinity-purify expressed elk-L polypeptides. elk-L polypeptides can be removed from an affinity column in a high salt elution buffer and then dialyzed into a lower salt buffer for use. Alternatively, the affinity column may comprise an antibody that binds elk-L. Example 4 describes a procedure for employing the elk-L protein of the present invention to generate monoclonal antibodies directed against elk-L.

Recombinant protein produced in bacterial culture is usually isolated by initial disruption of the host cells, centrifugation, extraction from cell pellets if an insoluble polypeptide, or from the supernatant fluid if a soluble polypeptide, followed by one or more concentration, salting-out, ion exchange, affinity purification or size exclusion chromatography steps. Finally, RP-HPLC can be employed for final purification steps. Nicrobial cells can be disrupted by any convenient method, including freeze-thaw cycling, sonication, mechanical disruption, or use of cell lysing agents.

Transformed yeast host cells are preferably employed to express elk-L as a secreted polypeptide. This simplifies purification. Secreted recombinant polypeptide from a yeast host cell fermentation can be purified by methods analogous to those disclosed by Urdal et al. (J. Chromatog. 296:171, 1984). Urdal et al. describe two sequential, reversed-phase HPLC steps for purification of recombinant human IL-2 on a preparative HPLC column.

Nucleic Acid Fragments

The present invention further provides fragments of the elk-L nucleotide sequences presented herein. Such fragments desirably comprise at least about 14 nucleotides of the sequence presented in SEQ ID NO:1. DNA and RNA complements of said fragments are provided herein, along with both single-stranded and double-stranded forms of the elk-L DNA.

Among the uses of such elk-L nucleic acid fragments is use as a probe. Such probes may be employed in cross-species hybridization procedures to isolate elk-L DNA from additional mammalian species. As one example, a probe corresponding to the extracellular domain of elk-L may be employed. The probes also find use in detecting the presence of elk-L nucleic acids in in vitro assays and in such procedures as Northern and Southern blots. Cell types expressing elk-L can be identified. Such procedures are well known, and the skilled artisan can choose a probe of suitable length, depending on the particular intended application.

Other useful fragments of the elk-L nucleic acids are antisense or sense oligonucleotides comprising a single-stranded nucleic acid sequence (either RNA or DNA) capable of binding to target elk-L mRNA (sense) or elk-L DNA (antisense) sequences. Antisense or sense oligonucleotides, according to the present invention, comprise a fragment of the coding region of elk-L cDNA. Such a fragment generally comprises at least about 14 nucleotides, preferably from about 14 to about 30 nucleotides. The ability to create an antisense or a sense oligonucleotide, based upon a cDNA sequence for a given protein is described in, for example, Stein and Cohen, Cancer Res. 48:2659, 1988 and van der Krol et al., BioTechniques 6:958, 1988.

Binding of antisense or sense oligonucleotides to target nucleic acid sequences results in the formation of duplexes that block translation (RNA) or transcription (DNA) by one of several means, including enhanced degradation of the duplexes, premature termination of transcription or translation, or by other means. The antisense oligonucleotides thus may be used to block expression of elk-L proteins. Antisense or sense oligonucleotides further comprise oligonucleotides having modified sugar-phosphodiester backbones (or other sugar linkages, such as those described in WO91/06629) and wherein such sugar linkages are resistant to endogenous nucleases. Such oligonucleotides with resistant sugar linkages are stable in vivo (i.e., capable of resisting enzymatic degradation) but retain sequence specificity to be able to bind to target nucleotide sequences. Other examples of sense or antisense oligonucleotides include those oligonucleotides which are covalently linked to organic moieties, such as those described in WO90/10448, and other moieties that increases affinity of the oligonucleotide for a target nucleic acid sequence, such as poly-(L-lysine). Further still, intercalating agents, such as ellipticine, and alkylating agents or metal complexes may be attached to sense or antisense oligonucleotides to modify binding specificities of the antisense or sense oliginucleotide for the target nucleotide sequence.

Antisense or sense oligonucleotides may be introduced into a cell containing the target nucleic acid sequence by any gene transfer method, including, for example, CaPO4 -mediated DNA transfection, electroporation, or by using gene transfer vectors such as Epstein-Barr virus. Antisense or sense oligonucleotides are preferably introduced into a cell containing the target nucleic acid sequence by insertion of the antisense or sense oligonucleotide into a suitable retroviral vector, then contacting the cell with the retrovirus vector containing the inserted sequence, either in vivo or ex vivo. Suitable retroviral vectors include, but are not limited to, the murine retrovirus M-MuLV, N2 (a retrovirus derived from M-MuLV), or or the double copy vectors designated DCT5A, DCT5B and DCT5C (see PCT application Ser. No. 90/02656).

Sense or antisense oligonucleotides also may be introduced into a cell containing the target nucleotide sequence by formation of a conjugate with a ligand binding molecule, as described in WO 91/04753. Suitable ligand binding molecules include, but are not limited to, cell surface receptors, growth factors, other cytokines, or other ligands that bind to cell surface receptors. Preferably, conjugation of the ligand binding molecule does not substantially interfere with the ability of the ligand binding molecule to bind to its corresponding molecule or receptor, or block entry of the sense or antisense oligonucleotide or its conjugated version into the cell.

Alternatively, a sense or an antisense oligonucleotide may be introduced into a cell containing the target nucleic acid sequence by formation of an oligonucleotide-lipid complex, as described in WO 90/10448. The sense or antisense oligonucleotide-lipid complex is preferably dissociated within the cell by an endogenous lipase.

Claim 1 of 7 Claims

What is claimed is:

1. A method for enhancing survival of a hippocampal neuron or inhibiting hippocampal neuronal death from excitotoxicity, comprising contacting said neuron with an effective amount of a substantially homogenous purified elk-L protein, wherein said protein (1) is at least 80% identical to at least amino acids 1 to 213 of SEQ ID NO: 2, (2) is characterized by the N-terminal amino acid sequence Ala-Thr-Pro-Leu-Ala-Lys-Asn-Leu-Glu-Pro-Val-Ser- (SEQ ID NO: 5), (3) is capable of binding elk, and (4) is capable of inhibiting death of rat hippocampal neurons resulting from excitotoxicity.

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