Third piece completes deadly puzzle: Structure of anthrax toxin offers clues to treatment

Researchers from the University of Chicago and Boston Biomedical Research Institute have described the three-dimensional structure of edema factor, one of the three toxins that make anthrax so deadly. This finding, published in the January 24 issue of Nature, is a crucial step toward designing drugs to block the harmful effects of anthrax and perhaps other bacterial toxins.

Although antibiotics can kill the bacteria, anthrax produces toxins that can cause death even after the bacteria have been eradicated. Since some forms of anthrax infection produce few symptoms until the disease is advanced, physicians need better drugs to counteract these toxins.

"Knowing the structure of edema factor and how it works allows us to design drugs that can block its effects," said Wei-Jen Tang, Ph.D., associate professor in the Ben May Cancer Research Laboratories at the University of Chicago and director of the study.

Anthrax produces three toxins that work together. One, called protective antigen, allows the other two to enter target cells. The second, lethal factor, destroys cells of the immune system. When immune cells die they release inflammatory agents that can cause septic shock, leading to death. The structure for protective antigen was published in February, 1997, and that of lethal factor in November, 2001.

The structure of the third toxin, called edema factor because

Contact: John Easton
University of Chicago Medical Center

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