The effect of crystalline diphtheria toxin on protein synthesis in vivo was evaluated in guinea pigs and mice. By two independent methods of analysis (microdensitometry of tissue radioautograms and radioactivity of tissue proteins), it was established that inhibition of protein synthesis was not a widespread metabolic effect of diphtheria toxin. In the sensitive guinea pig, only the heart and the pancreas showed any demonstrable reduction in the quantity of tritiated leucine incorporated into proteins following challenge of the animals with the crystalline toxin. No such inhibition was noted in mice which are resistant to the action of diphtheria toxin.
The effect on the pancreas involved a decrease in the synthesis of pancreatic enzymes and their subsequent secretion. For reasons discussed, it was concluded that this lesion was not as significant as the inhibition of protein synthesis in the heart tissues. Although the rate of protein turnover in heart muscle is relatively low, an inhibition of 73% was noted when the exchange period with the tritiated leucine was 6 hr.
It was suggested that the inhibition of protein synthesis in heart tissues could provide a biochemical rationale for the site and mode of action of diphtheria toxin in the sensitive mammalian host. An attempt was also made to correlate the biochemical heart lesion described here with past clinical evidence of cardiac failure and tissue pathology noted in many cases of fatal diphtheria infections of humans.