Looking for a Lock

Study uncovers new angles for preventing Shiga and ricin toxins from entering cells

Micrograph with pill-shaped E. coli bacteria shown in pink against a purple background
Shiga toxin-producing E. coli. Image: Janice Haney Carr/CDC

A research team from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital has identified new potential lines of defense for Shiga and ricin toxins. In doing so, the scientists have shed new light on a fundamental part of cell biology: glycosylation.

The study, published Nov. 27 in PLOS Biology, used CRISPR/Cas9 technology to explore what factors in cells are necessary for the toxins to get in. 

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Shiga toxin, a widespread source of food poisoning, is produced by Shigella dysenteriae and some E. coli strains, such as O157:H7. It occasionally causes hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious kidney condition, in children. 

Ricin is a plant toxin used as a bioterrorism agent.

What do toxins need in a cell receptor?

Once inside our tissues, Shiga and ricin toxins work similarly, disrupting cells’ ability to make proteins. To get in, though, they rely on different entry portals. Shiga toxins use a type of glycolipid (a fatty molecule with an attached sugar) called Gb3 as their receptor, while ricins use a variety of glycans (sugar molecules).

But beyond that, little was known. 

Senior author Min Dong, HMS assistant professor of surgery at Boston Children’s, and first author Songhai Tian, a postdoctoral researcher in the Dong lab, hoped to complete the picture.

Dong and his lab are world experts in toxins and how to combat them. They’d previously figured out how Clostridium difficile’s most potent toxin gets into cells and zeroed in on the first new botulinum toxin identified since 1969.

For the new study, the team began with Shiga toxins. 

They used CRISPR/Cas9 to conduct a genome-wide screen. This entailed systematically deleting genes one by one in a cell line to see if the loss of any of them prevented the toxins from entering.

“This was not possible previously, because the receptor for the toxin isn’t found in most cell types,” said Dong. “Songhai screened many different cell lines without much success, until he talked to our neighbor,” Rosalyn Adam, HMS associate professor of surgery at Boston Children’s, “who happens to have a few bladder cancer cell lines. One of these turns out to be super-sensitive to Shiga toxins because it has a high level of Gb3. Finding a good cell model was the first breakthrough in the project.”

The second screen, in readily available HeLa cell lines, looked for cell factors required for ricin toxicity.

“The screen approach was very powerful,” said Tian. “It identified almost all the known factors for both toxins, as well as some novel factors.”

New leads on blocking toxicity

When the team compared the two screens, they found two factors that both Shiga and ricin toxins require to penetrate cells: the transmembrane proteins TMEM165 and TM9SF2. Both are found in the cell’s Golgi apparatus, whose job it is to modify and package large molecules made by the cell. When either protein was deleted, the cells produced fewer fatty molecules called glycosphingolipids, including Gb3.

TMEM165 and TM9SF2 are too general in their function to serve as safe targets to try to block with drugs, but they could point the way to other targetable molecules, Dong said.

A third protein, LATMP4a, offers more direct promise, according to Dong. It is specifically required for cells to make Gb3, the receptor used by Shiga toxin. 

“This protein was not known before, and we think it would make a very good therapeutic target for Shiga toxicity,” said Dong.

Updating the textbook

Dong is equally excited about what the work has to say about glycosylation, the attachment of sugars to large molecules like proteins and lipids. This fundamental biologic process enables our cells to create highly varied molecules with diverse functions, above and beyond what’s encoded in our genes. It also has a role in disease.

“We used toxins as a probe to understand a key cellular process,” Dong said. “The two new proteins identified in our screens likely regulate the overall environment in the Golgi apparatus. We’re now trying to understand what they’re regulating specifically.”

This isn’t the first time one of Dong’s toxin investigations turned up something unexpected. His team’s recent work on C. difficile’s toxin B revealed a potential anti-cancer strategy.

The current study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Boston Children’s Hospital Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. 

Adapted from a post on Vector, the Boston Children’s research and clinical innovation blog.