Disease-associated strains of Helicobacter pylori produce a potent toxin that is believed to play a key role in peptic ulcer disease in man. In vitro the toxin causes severe vacuolar degeneration in target cells and has thus been termed VacA (for vacuolating cytotoxin A). Cytotoxic activity is associated with a > 600-kD protein consisting of several copies of a 95-kD polypeptide that undergoes specific proteolytic cleavage after release from the bacteria to produce 37- and 58-kD fragments. Quick freeze, deep etch electron microscopy has revealed that the native cytotoxin is formed as regular oligomers with either six- or seven-fold radial symmetry. Within each monomer, two domains can clearly be distinguished, suggesting that the 37- and 58-kD fragments derive from proteolytic cleavage between discrete subunits of the monomer. Analysis of preparations of the toxin that had undergone extensive cleavage into the 37- and 58-kD subunits supports this interpretation and reveals that after cleavage the subunits remain associated in the oligomeric structure. The data suggest a structural similarity with AB-type toxins.

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