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Botulism

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micrograph of C. botulinum
The bacterium C. botulinum produces a nerve toxin, which causes the rare, but serious paralytic illness botulism. Credit CDC.

Improving Treatments for Botulism

Researchers from Tufts University and Thomas Jefferson University have set out to find an improved way to treat and prevent botulism, a rare but serious paralytic illness. Botulism is caused by botulinum neurotoxins (BoNTs), which are produced by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. All forms of botulism lead to paralysis that typically starts with the facial muscles and then spreads towards the limbs. In severe forms, it leads to paralysis of the breathing muscles and causes respiratory failure.

There are three basic types of botulism—foodborne botulism, intestinal botulism (proliferation of the bacterium in the gut), and wound botulism (contamination of a wound by the bacterium). Each can be treated effectively with antitoxins if the agent is administered before the symptoms become severe. The treatment is usually produced by immunizing large animals with an inactivated form of BoNTs, which triggers the animal’s body to generate antitoxins to defend itself against the disease. The process of manufacturing the antitoxins into a usable form for humans is an expensive task, and the product has a limited shelf life.

Testing a new antitoxin stategy in mice, the research team found that a pool of four different small antitoxin binding agents could direct a single antibody (an infection-fighting protein) to become attached to the toxin at four sites and protect the mice from BoNT just as well as the conventional antitoxin-only treatment for botulism. Importantly, this combination treatment would be faster and more economical to produce, and easier to stockpile.

With additional development, treatments such as this might be beneficial in treating other diseases as well, such as exposures to other toxins and venoms.

Sepulveda J, Mukherjee J, Tzipori S, Simpson L, Shoemaker C. Efficient Serum Clearance of Botulinum Neurotoxin Achieved Using a Pool of Small Antitoxin Binding Agents. Infection and Immunity. 2010 February; 78 (2): 756-763.

Last Updated May 13, 2010

Last Reviewed May 13, 2010