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Proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9 (PCSK9) is an enzyme encoded by the PCSK9 gene in humans on chromosome 1.[1] It is the 9th member of the proprotein convertase family of proteins that activate other proteins.[2] Similar genes (orthologs) are found across many species. As with many proteins, PCSK9 is inactive when first synthesized, because a section of peptide chains blocks their activity; proprotein convertases remove that section to activate the enzyme.[3] The PCSK9 gene also contains one of 27 loci associated with increased risk of coronary artery disease.[4]

PCSK9 is ubiquitously expressed in many tissues and cell types.[5] PCSK9 binds to the receptor for low-density lipoprotein particles (LDL), which typically transport 3,000 to 6,000 fat molecules (including cholesterol) per particle, within extracellular fluid. The LDL receptor (LDLR), on liver and other cell membranes, binds and initiates ingestion of LDL-particles from extracellular fluid into cells, thus reducing LDL particle concentrations. If PCSK9 is blocked, more LDLRs are recycled and are present on the surface of cells to remove LDL-particles from the extracellular fluid.[6] Therefore, blocking PCSK9 can lower blood LDL-particle concentrations.[7][8]

PCSK9 has medical importance because it acts in lipoprotein homeostasis. Agents which block PCSK9 can lower LDL particle concentrations. The first two PCSK9 inhibitors, alirocumab and evolocumab, were approved as once every two week injections, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2015 for lowering LDL-particle concentrations when statins and other drugs were not sufficiently effective or poorly tolerated. The cost of these new medications, as of 2015, was $14,000 per year at full retail; judged of unclear cost effectiveness by some.[9] While these medications are prescribed by many physicians, the payment for prescriptions are often denied by insurance providers.[10][11][12]


In February 2003, Nabil Seidah, a scientist at the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal in Canada, discovered a novel human proprotein convertase, the gene for which was located on the short arm of chromosome 1.[13] Meanwhile, a lab led by Catherine Boileau at the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in Paris had been following families with familial hypercholesterolaemia, a genetic condition that, in 90% of cases causes coronary artery disease (FRAMINGHAM study) and in 60% of cases may lead to an early death;[14] they had identified a mutation on chromosome 1 carried by some of these families, but had been unable to identify the relevant gene. The labs got together and by the end of the year published their work, linking mutations in the gene, now identified as PCSK9, to the condition.[15][13] In their paper, they speculated that the mutations might make the gene overactive. In that same year, investigators at Rockefeller University and University of Texas Southwestern had discovered the same protein in mice, and had worked out the novel pathway that regulates LDL cholesterol in which PCSK9 is involved, and it soon became clear that the mutations identified in France led to excessive PCSK9 activity, and thus excessive removal of the LDL receptor, leaving people carrying the mutations with too much LDL cholesterol.[13] Meanwhile, Dr. Helen H. Hobbs and Dr. Jonathan Cohen at UT-Southwestern had been studying people with very high and very low cholesterol, and had been collecting DNA samples.[16] With the new knowledge about the role of PCSK9 and its location in the genome, they sequenced the relevant region of chromosome 1 in people with very low cholesterol and they found nonsense mutations in the gene, thus validating PCSK9 as a biological target for drug discovery.[13][17]

In July 2015, the FDA approved the first PCSK9 Inhibitor drugs for medical use.[18]



The PCSK9 gene resides on chromosome 1 at the band 1p32.3[19] and includes 13 exons.[20] This gene produces two isoforms through alternative splicing.[21]


PCSK9 is a member of the peptidase S8 family.[21]

The solved structure of PCSK9 reveals four major components in the pre-processed protein: the signal peptide (residues 1-30); the N-terminal prodomain (residues 31-152); the catalytic domain (residues 153-425); and the C-terminal domain (residues 426-692), which is further divided into three modules.[22] The N-terminal prodomain has a flexible crystal structure and is responsible for regulating PCSK9 function by interacting with and blocking the catalytic domain, which otherwise binds the epidermal growth factor-like repeat A (EGF-A) domain of the LDLR.[22][23][24] While previous studies indicated that the C-terminal domain was uninvolved in binding LDLR,[25][26] a recent study by Du et al. demonstrated that the C-terminal domain does bind LDLR.[22] The secretion of PCSK9 is largely dependent on the autocleavage of the signal peptide and N-terminal prodomain, though the N-terminal prodomain retains its association with the catalytic domain. In particular, residues 61-70 in the N-terminal prodomain are crucial for its autoprocessing.[22]

File:PDB 2p4e EBI.png
2p4e: Crystal structure of PCSK9[27]
File:PDB 2pmw EBI.png
2pmw: Crystal structure of proprotein convertase subtilisin kexin type 9 (PCSK9)[28]


Role and regulatory function

This protein plays a major regulatory role in cholesterol homeostasis, mainly by reducing LDLR levels on the plasma membrane. Reduced LDLR levels result in decreased metabolism of LDL-particles, which could lead to hypercholesterolemia.[29] When LDL binds to LDLR, it induces internalization of LDLR-LDL complex within an endosome. The acidity of the endosomal environment induces LDLR to adopt a hairpin conformation.[30] The conformational change causes LDLR to release its LDL ligand, and the receptor is recycled back to the plasma membrane. However, when PCSK9 binds to the LDLR (through the EGF-A domain), PCSK9 prevents the conformational change of the receptor-ligand complex. This inhibition redirects the LDLR to the lysosome instead.[30]

PCSK9 is synthesized as a soluble zymogen that undergoes autocatalytic intramolecular processing in the endoplasmic reticulum. The protein may function as a proprotein convertase.[3] PCSK9 is expressed mainly in the liver, the intestine, the kidney, and the central nervous system.[31] PCSK9 also plays an important role in intestinal triglyceride-rich apoB lipoprotein production in small intestine and postprandial lipemia.[32][33][34]

After being processed in the ER, PCSK9 co-localizes with the protein sortilin on its way through the Golgi and trans-Golgi complex. A PCSK9-sortilin interaction is proposed to be required for cellular secretion of PCSK9.[35] In healthy humans, plasma PCSK9 levels directly correlate with plasma sortilin levels, following a diurnal rhythm similar to cholesterol synthesis.[36][37] The plasma PCSK9 concentration is higher in women compared to men, and the PCSK9 concentrations decrease with age in men but increase in women, suggesting that estrogen level most likely plays a role.[38][39] PCSK9 gene expression can be regulated by sterol-response element binding proteins (SREBP-1/2), which also controls LDLR expression.[36]

PCSK9 may also have a role in the differentiation of cortical neurons.[1]

Clinical significance

Variants of PCSK9 can reduce or increase circulating cholesterol. LDL-particles are removed from the blood when they bind to LDLR on the surface of cells, including liver cells, and are taken inside the cells. When PCSK9 binds to an LDLR, the receptor is destroyed along with the LDL particle. PCSK9 degrades LDLR by preventing the hairpin conformational change of LDLR.[40] If PCSK9 does not bind, the receptor will return to the surface of the cell and can continue to remove LDL-particles from the bloodstream.[41]

Other variants are associated with a rare autosomal dominant familial hypercholesterolemia (HCHOLA3).[42][15][43] The mutations increase its protease activity, reducing LDLR levels and preventing the uptake of cholesterol into the cells.[15]

In humans, PCSK9 was initially discovered as a protein expressed in the brain.[44] However, it has also been described in the kidney, the pancreas, liver and small intestine.[44] Recent evidence indicate that PCSK9 is highly expressed in arterial walls such as endothelium, smooth muscle cells, and macrophages, with a local effect that can regulate vascular homeostasis and atherosclerosis.[45][46][47] Accordingly, it is now very clear that PCSK9 has pro-atherosclerotic effects and regulates lipoprotein synthesis.[48]

As PCSK9 binds to LDLR, which prevents the removal of LDL-particles from the blood plasma, several studies have determined the potential use of PCSK9 inhibitors in the treatment of hyperlipoproteinemia (commonly called hypercholesterolemia).[9][44][49][50][51][52][53][54] Furthermore, loss-of-function mutations in the PCSK9 gene result in lower levels of LDL and protection against cardiovascular disease.[48][55][56]

In addition to its lipoprotein synthetic and pro-atherosclerotic effects, PCSK9 is involved in glucose metabolism and obesity,[57] regulation of re-absorption of sodium in the kidney which is relevant in hypertension.[58][59] Furthermore, PCSK9 may be involved in bacterial or viral infections and sepsis.[60][61] In the brain the role of PCSK9 is still controversial and may be either pro-apoptotic or protective in the development of the nervous system.[1] PCSK9 levels have been detected in the cerebrospinal fluid at a 50-60 times lower level than in serum.[62]

Clinical marker

A multi-locus genetic risk score study based on a combination of 27 loci including the PCSK9 gene, identified individuals at increased risk for both incident and recurrent coronary artery disease events, as well as an enhanced clinical benefit from statin therapy. The study was based on a community cohort study (the Malmo Diet and Cancer study) and four additional randomized controlled trials of primary prevention cohorts (JUPITER and ASCOT) and secondary prevention cohorts (CARE and PROVE IT-TIMI 22).[4]

PCSK9 Inhibitor Drugs

Several studies have determined the potential use of PCSK9 inhibitors in the treatment of hyperlipoproteinemia (commonly called hypercholesterolemia).[9][44] Furthermore, loss-of-function mutations in the PCSK9 gene result in lower levels of LDL and protection against cardiovascular disease.[48]

PCSK9 inhibitor drugs are now approved by the FDA to treat familial hypercholesterolemia.[10]

As a drug target

Drugs can inhibit PCSK9, leading to lowered circulating LDL particle concentrations. Since LDL particle concentrations are thought by many experts to be a driver of cardiovascular disease like heart attacks, it is plausible that these drugs may also reduce the risk of such diseases. Clinical studies, including phase III clinical trials, are now underway to describe the effect of PCSK9 inhibition on cardiovascular disease, and the safety and efficacy profile of the drugs.[63][64][65][66][67] Among those inhibitors under development in December 2013 were the antibodies alirocumab, evolocumab, 1D05-IgG2 (Merck), RG-7652 and LY3015014, as well as the RNAi therapeutic inclisiran.[68] PCSK9 inhibitors are promising therapeutics for the treatment of people who exhibit statin intolerance, or as a way to bypass frequent dosage of statins for higher LDL concentration reduction.[69][70]

A review published in 2015 concluded that these agents, when used in patients with high LDL-particle concentrations (thus at greatly elevated risk for cardiovascular disease) seem to be safe and effective at reducing all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and heart attacks.[71] However more recent reviews conclude that while PCSK9 inhibitor treatment provides additional benefits beyond maximally tolerated statin therapy in high-risk individuals,[72] PCSK9 inhibitor use probably results in little or no difference in mortality.[73]

Regeneron (in collaboration with Sanofi) became the first to market a PCSK9 inhibitor, with a competitor Amgen reaching market slightly later.[10] The drugs are approved by the FDA for treatment of hypercholesterolemia, notably the genetic condition heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia which causes high cholesterol levels and heart attacks at a young age.


An FDA warning in March 2014 about possible cognitive adverse effects of PCSK9 inhibition caused concern, as the FDA asked companies to include neurocognitive testing into their Phase III clinical trials.[74]

Monoclonal antibodies

A number of monoclonal antibodies that bind to and inhibit PCSK9 near the catalytic domain were in clinical trials as of 2014. These include evolocumab (Amgen), bococizumab (Pfizer), and alirocumab (Aventis/Regeneron).[75] As of July 2015, the EU approved these drugs including Evolocumab/Amgen according to Medscape news agency report. A meta-analysis of 24 clinical trials has shown that monoclonal antibodies against PCSK9 can reduce cholesterol, cardiac events and all-cause mortality.[71]

A possible side effect of the monoclonal antibody might be irritation at the injection site. Before the infusions, participants received oral corticosteroids, histamine receptor blockers, and acetaminophen to reduce the risk of infusion-related reactions, which by themselves will cause several side effects.[76]

Peptide mimics

Peptides that mimick the EGFA domain of the LDLR that binds to PCSK9 have been developed to inhibit PCSK9.[77]

Gene silencing

The PCSK9 antisense oligonucleotide increases expression of the LDLR and decreases circulating total cholesterol levels in mice.[78] A locked nucleic acid reduced PCSK9 mRNA levels in mice.[79][80] Initial clinical trials showed positive results of ALN-PCS, which acts by means of RNA interference.[67][81][82]


A vaccine that targets PCSK9 has been developed to treat high LDL-particle concentrations. The vaccine uses a VLP (virus-like particle) as an immunogenic carrier of an antigenic PCSK9 peptide. VLP's are viruses that have had their DNA removed so that they retain their external structure for antigen display but are unable to replicate; they can induce an immune response without causing infection. Mice and macaques vaccinated with bacteriophage VLPs displaying PCSK9-derived peptides developed high-titer IgG antibodies that bound to circulating PCSK9. Vaccination was associated with significant reductions in total cholesterol, free cholesterol, phospholipids, and triglycerides.[83]

Naturally occurring inhibitors

The plant alkaloid berberine inhibits the transcription of the PCSK9 gene in immortalized human hepatocytes in vitro,[84] and lowers serum PCSK9 in mice and hamsters in vivo.[85] It has been speculated[85] that this action contributes to the ability of berberine to lower serum cholesterol.[86] Annexin A2, an endogenous protein, is a natural inhibitor of PCSK9 activity.[87]


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Further reading

  • Abifadel M, Rabès JP, Boileau C, Varret M (June 2007). "[After the LDL receptor and apolipoprotein B, autosomal dominant hypercholesterolemia reveals its third protagonist: PCSK9]". Ann. Endocrinol. (in French). Paris. 68 (2–3): 138–46. doi:10.1016/j.ando.2007.02.002. PMID 17391637.
  • Allard D, Amsellem S, Abifadel M, Trillard M, Devillers M, Luc G, Krempf M, Reznik Y, Girardet JP, Fredenrich A, Junien C, Varret M, Boileau C, Benlian P, Rabès JP (November 2005). "Novel mutations of the PCSK9 gene cause variable phenotype of autosomal dominant hypercholesterolemia". Hum. Mutat. 26 (5): 497. doi:10.1002/humu.9383. PMID 16211558.
  • Benjannet S, Rhainds D, Essalmani R, Mayne J, Wickham L, Jin W, Asselin MC, Hamelin J, Varret M, Allard D, Trillard M, Abifadel M, Tebon A, Attie AD, Rader DJ, Boileau C, Brissette L, Chrétien M, Prat A, Seidah NG (November 2004). "NARC-1/PCSK9 and its natural mutants: zymogen cleavage and effects on the low density lipoprotein (LDL) receptor and LDL cholesterol". J. Biol. Chem. 279 (47): 48865–75. doi:10.1074/jbc.M409699200. PMID 15358785.
  • Lalanne F, Lambert G, Amar MJ, Chétiveaux M, Zaïr Y, Jarnoux AL, Ouguerram K, Friburg J, Seidah NG, Brewer HB, Krempf M, Costet P (June 2005). "Wild-type PCSK9 inhibits LDL clearance but does not affect apoB-containing lipoprotein production in mouse and cultured cells". J. Lipid Res. 46 (6): 1312–9. doi:10.1194/jlr.M400396-JLR200. PMID 15741654.
  • Lambert G (June 2007). "Unravelling the functional significance of PCSK9". Curr. Opin. Lipidol. 18 (3): 304–9. doi:10.1097/MOL.0b013e3281338531. PMID 17495605.
  • Leren TP (May 2004). "Mutations in the PCSK9 gene in Norwegian subjects with autosomal dominant hypercholesterolemia". Clin. Genet. 65 (5): 419–22. doi:10.1111/j.0009-9163.2004.0238.x. PMID 15099351.
  • Maxwell KN, Breslow JL (May 2004). "Adenoviral-mediated expression of Pcsk9 in mice results in a low-density lipoprotein receptor knockout phenotype". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 101 (18): 7100–5. Bibcode:2004PNAS..101.7100M. doi:10.1073/pnas.0402133101. PMC 406472. PMID 15118091.
  • Maxwell KN, Soccio RE, Duncan EM, Sehayek E, Breslow JL (November 2003). "Novel putative SREBP and LXR target genes identified by microarray analysis in liver of cholesterol-fed mice". J. Lipid Res. 44 (11): 2109–19. doi:10.1194/jlr.M300203-JLR200. PMID 12897189.
  • Naoumova RP, Tosi I, Patel D, Neuwirth C, Horswell SD, Marais AD, van Heyningen C, Soutar AK (December 2005). "Severe hypercholesterolemia in four British families with the D374Y mutation in the PCSK9 gene: long-term follow-up and treatment response". Arterioscler. Thromb. Vasc. Biol. 25 (12): 2654–60. doi:10.1161/01.ATV.0000190668.94752.ab. PMID 16224054.
  • Naureckiene S, Ma L, Sreekumar K, Purandare U, Lo CF, Huang Y, Chiang LW, Grenier JM, Ozenberger BA, Jacobsen JS, Kennedy JD, DiStefano PS, Wood A, Bingham B (December 2003). "Functional characterization of Narc 1, a novel proteinase related to proteinase K". Arch. Biochem. Biophys. 420 (1): 55–67. doi:10.1016/j.abb.2003.09.011. PMID 14622975.
  • Ouguerram K, Chetiveaux M, Zair Y, Costet P, Abifadel M, Varret M, Boileau C, Magot T, Krempf M (August 2004). "Apolipoprotein B100 metabolism in autosomal-dominant hypercholesterolemia related to mutations in PCSK9". Arterioscler. Thromb. Vasc. Biol. 24 (8): 1448–53. doi:10.1161/01.ATV.0000133684.77013.88. PMID 15166014.
  • Pisciotta L, Priore Oliva C, Cefalù AB, Noto D, Bellocchio A, Fresa R, Cantafora A, Patel D, Averna M, Tarugi P, Calandra S, Bertolini S (June 2006). "Additive effect of mutations in LDLR and PCSK9 genes on the phenotype of familial hypercholesterolemia". Atherosclerosis. 186 (2): 433–40. doi:10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2005.08.015. PMID 16183066.
  • Shibata N, Ohnuma T, Higashi S, Higashi M, Usui C, Ohkubo T, Watanabe T, Kawashima R, Kitajima A, Ueki A, Nagao M, Arai H (December 2005). "No genetic association between PCSK9 polymorphisms and Alzheimer's disease and plasma cholesterol level in Japanese patients". Psychiatr. Genet. 15 (4): 239. doi:10.1097/00041444-200512000-00004. PMID 16314752.
  • Sun XM, Eden ER, Tosi I, Neuwirth CK, Wile D, Naoumova RP, Soutar AK (May 2005). "Evidence for effect of mutant PCSK9 on apolipoprotein B secretion as the cause of unusually severe dominant hypercholesterolaemia". Hum. Mol. Genet. 14 (9): 1161–9. doi:10.1093/hmg/ddi128. PMID 15772090.
  • Timms KM, Wagner S, Samuels ME, Forbey K, Goldfine H, Jammulapati S, Skolnick MH, Hopkins PN, Hunt SC, Shattuck DM (March 2004). "A mutation in PCSK9 causing autosomal-dominant hypercholesterolemia in a Utah pedigree". Hum. Genet. 114 (4): 349–53. doi:10.1007/s00439-003-1071-9. PMID 14727179.
  • Varret M, Rabès JP, Saint-Jore B, Cenarro A, Marinoni JC, Civeira F, Devillers M, Krempf M, Coulon M, Thiart R, Kotze MJ, Schmidt H, Buzzi JC, Kostner GM, Bertolini S, Pocovi M, Rosa A, Farnier M, Martinez M, Junien C, Boileau C (May 1999). "A third major locus for autosomal dominant hypercholesterolemia maps to 1p34.1-p32". Am. J. Hum. Genet. 64 (5): 1378–87. doi:10.1086/302370. PMC 1377874. PMID 10205269.