April 16, 2001 -- Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico report that they have designed decoy molecules that, in laboratory studies, can stop the spread of Staphylococcal superantigen, a toxin responsible for about 25 percent of the food poisoning cases in the United States. The same method might be used to fight similar toxins, including those associated with anthrax, HIV and toxic shock syndrome, according to the researchers.
The research is reported in the current (April 10) issue of Biochemistry, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.
The decoy molecules are better suited to protect the body's immune system from attack than currently used antibiotic approaches, according to Goutam Gupta, Ph.D., who led the research project. Ideally, the decoys could offer a faster-acting, more effective alternative to stop the toxins, he said. If all goes well with further research, he believes it could be given to patients suffering from food poisoning or toxic shock syndrome, or given prior to possible exposure to biowarfare agents like anthrax.
Staphylococcus, or staph toxin, is a protein with two binding sites on its surface that it uses to spread from cell to cell in the body. Staph toxins are bacterial "superantigens" that overstimulate the body's immune system, turning it against itself.
The decoy molecules target the binding sites and prevent the toxin from attaching to cells, Gupta said. The toxins eventually die if they are unable to infect any other cells. The decoys are not expected to upset the functions of normal cells in the body, Gupta noted.
In the laboratory study, the decoy molecules successfully disarmed a model staph toxin, Gupta said. Toxins implicated in several other diseases and infections, including anthrax, HIV and toxic shock syndrome, act in much the same way as the staph toxin, according to Gupta.