When a team of OMRF scientists set out to improve the anthrax vaccine, they started with a theory everybody thought would work: Break apart the toxins so they can’t enter cells. Problem solved.
But things don’t always work as expected. In fact, the theory doesn’t work at all, according to a paper by OMRF’s Darise Farris, Ph.D., and her graduate student Melissa Nguyen in the upcoming issue of the scientific journal Infection and Immunity. The article was highlighted for special attention by the journal’s editors.
“Everybody in the field thought this approach would work, but the evidence isn’t there,” Farris said. “But that’s exactly why we do experiments.”
The current anthrax vaccine requires five shots and an annual booster—a cumbersome burden for those who want protection. Unfortunately, the vaccine is not effective in all patients, which is why Farris and her colleagues went looking for new targets to improve the vaccine’s performance.
When anthrax enters the system, it creates two toxins, both of which are made up of two proteins. Both toxins contain a protein called protective antigen, which acts like a key, letting the toxin into cells where it can cause damage. Farris hypothesized that disengaging the key would keep the toxin “locked out.”
“The current vaccine helps the body attack one of those proteins,” Farris said. “We decided to create antibodies that would attack the piece that connects the two proteins, in hopes that it would stop the anthrax from entering and harming cells.”
The results, however, showed the toxins were not neutralized. Somehow, they were still affecting the cells.
“It might seem odd that a journal would highlight a paper about a theory that turned out wrong, but this theory was supported by many of those interested in the anthrax vaccine,” Farris said. “Showing that it didn’t work was a surprise to a lot of people.”
But in science, even the wrong result isn’t so bad. The researchers will now move on to other targets and continue working to improve the vaccine.
“We’ve made important inroads with this discovery, so that we can identify the specific types of protective reactions that we need an anthrax vaccination to target,” said co-author Judith James, M.D., Ph.D. “This is another important step in helping to counter this potential bioterrorism pathogen.”
The study was conducted with help from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. The research was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.