Molecular structure reveals how botulinum toxin attaches to nerve cells

December 13, 2006

WHAT: Botulism is a life-threatening disease caused by exposure to botulinum neurotoxins, which are among the most potent toxins known. These neurotoxins are produced by Clostridium botulinum, a bacterium found in soil and food. In the body, the toxins bind to and enter neurons, interfering with nerve transmission and disrupting the communication between the nerve and muscle fibers throughout the body. Poisoning with botulinum toxins leads to an often-fatal paralysis, which is one reason they are considered among the highest biodefense research priorities by the U.S. government.

As part of its overall biodefense program, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has established the Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases (RCEs) to support basic and applied research on biodefense-related agents, including botulinum neurotoxins. Now a group of researchers funded in part through two of these RCEs has provided a rare atomic glimpse of the initial step one of these toxins takes to gain entry into human neurons.

In an advanced online publication of the journal Nature, the scientists show structurally how botulinum neurotoxin B (one of seven toxins the bacterium produces) recognizes receptors on the surface of human neurons. The structure reveals how these toxins work at the molecular level and provides a promising new target for designing drugs to block the action of botulinum neurotoxins.
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ARTICLE: "Structural basis of cell surface receptor recognition by botulinum neurotoxin B," by Q Chai et al. Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature05411 (2006). This study was conducted by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute and The University of Wisconsin, Madison.

SPOKESPERSONS: Katherine Taylor, Ph.D., Chief, Biodefense Drug Development Section, Office of Biodefense Research Affairs, NIAID, is available to discuss the Nature article.

Rona Hirschberg, Ph.D, Regional Regional Centers Senior Program Officer, Office of Biodefense Research Affairs, NIAID, is available to discuss the Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases (RCE). For more information on the RCEs, see http://www.rcebiodefense.org/.

CONTACT: To schedule interviews, contact Jason Socrates Bardi in the NIAID News and Public Information Branch.

NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health. NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria and illness from potential agents of bioterrorism. NIAID also supports research on basic immunology, transplantation and immune-related disorders, including autoimmune diseases, asthma and allergies.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)--The Nation's Medical Research Agency--includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov.

NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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