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High-sensitivity MALDI-TOF MS quantification of anthrax lethal toxin for diagnostics and evaluation of medical countermeasures
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    Inhalation anthrax has a rapid progression and high fatality rate. Pathology and death from inhalation of Bacillus anthracis spores are attributed to the actions of secreted protein toxins. Protective antigen (PA) binds and imports the catalytic component lethal factor (LF), a zinc endoprotease, and edema factor (EF), an adenylyl cyclase, into susceptible cells. PA-LF is termed lethal toxin (LTx) and PA-EF, edema toxin. As the universal transporter for both toxins, PA is an important target for vaccination and immunotherapeutic intervention. However, its quantification has been limited to methods of relatively low analytic sensitivity. Quantification of LTx may be more clinically relevant than LF or PA alone because LTx is the toxic form that acts on cells. A method was developed for LTx-specific quantification in plasma using anti-PA IgG magnetic immunoprecipitation of PA and quantification of LF activity that co-purified with PA. The method was fast (<4 h total time to detection), sensitive at 0.033 ng/mL LTx in plasma for the fast analysis (0.0075 ng/mL LTx in plasma for an 18 h reaction), precise (6.3-9.9 % coefficient of variation), and accurate (0.1-12.7 %error; n ≥ 25). Diagnostic sensitivity was 100 % (n = 27 animal/clinical cases). Diagnostic specificity was 100 % (n = 141). LTx was detected post-antibiotic treatment in 6/6 treated rhesus macaques and 3/3 clinical cases of inhalation anthrax and as long as 8 days post-treatment. Over the course of infection in two rhesus macaques, LTx was first detected at 0.101 and 0.237 ng/mL at 36 h post-exposure and increased to 1147 and 12,107 ng/mL in late-stage anthrax. This demonstrated the importance of LTx as a diagnostic and therapeutic target. This method provides a sensitive, accurate tool for anthrax toxin detection and evaluation of PA-directed therapeutics.

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