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Researchers Exploring 'Fusion Strategy' Against E. Coli

South Dakota State University research is exploring a "fusion strategy" for making improved vaccines to protect pigs and humans against some strains of E. coli.

The SDSU researchers altered the toxins produced by a form of E. coli and genetically fused the non-poisonous "toxoid" to a protein known to cause an immune reaction. The resulting "fusion protein" could be used to develop a vaccine.

Assistant professor Weiping Zhang in SDSU's Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences Department studies a group of E. coli called enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, or ETEC. Besides causing diarrheal illness in farm animals such as pigs, ETEC strains are the main source of bacterial-caused diarrhea in human populations in the developing world, and the chief cause of traveler's diarrhea. The World Health Organization estimates that ETEC causes approximately 210 million cases of illness in humans and 380,000 deaths, mostly in children in developing countries.

Enterotoxigenic E. coli produce enterotoxins that affect the tissues lining the intestine and cause the vomiting and diarrhea associated with ETEC.

The research is one of the ongoing projects in SDSU's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Vaccinology, which looks for new ways to diagnose and treat infectious disease in humans and domestic animals.

The ETEC project is innovative in that it uses as vaccine components, the toxins that scientists call "heat-stable enterotoxins," or STs, that are generally harmful to animals and humans and remain active even in a temperature of boiling water.

Zhang said heat-stable enterotoxins can't be used directly as a vaccine component because of their toxicity and because they are poor at causing an immune response unless coupled to a carrier protein. For that reason, many vaccine researchers working with ETEC focus their research on other disease-causing elements -- the so-called heat-labile enterotoxins that are destroyed at high temperatures and the fimbriae, or appendages that help the bacteria hold on to the host and cause disease.

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