Diphtheria toxoid is produced by detoxification of diphtheria toxin with formaldehyde. This study was performed to elucidate the chemical nature and location of formaldehyde-induced modifications in diphtheria toxoid. Diphtheria toxin was chemically modified using 4 different reactions with the following reagents: (1) formaldehyde and NaCNBH3, (2) formaldehyde, (3) formaldehyde and NaCNBH3 followed by formaldehyde and glycine, and (4) formaldehyde and glycine. The modifications were studied by SDS-PAGE, primary amino group determination, and liquid chromatography–electrospray mass spectrometry of chymotryptic digests. Reaction 1 resulted in quantitative dimethylation of all lysine residues. Reaction 2 caused intramolecular cross-links, including the NAD+-binding cavity and the receptor-binding site. Moreover, A fragments and B fragments were cross-linked by formaldehyde on part of the diphtheria toxoid molecules. Reaction 3 resulted in formaldehyde-glycine attachments, including in shielded areas of the protein. The detoxification reaction typically used for vaccine preparation (reaction 4) resulted in a combination of intramolecular cross-links and formaldehyde-glycine attachments. Both the NAD+-binding cavity and the receptor-binding site of diphtheria toxin were chemically modified. Although CD4+ T-cell epitopes were affected to some extent, one universal CD4+ T-cell epitope remained almost completely unaltered by the treatment with formaldehyde and glycine.
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