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Zeptomole per milliliter detection and quantification of edema factor in plasma by LC-MS/MS yields insights into toxemia and the progression of inhalation anthrax

Lins, RC;Boyer, AE;Kuklenyik, Z;Woolfitt, AR;Goldstein, J;Hoffmaster, AR;Gallegos-Candela, M;Leysath, CE;Chen, Z;Brumlow, JO;Quinn, CP;Bagarozzi, DA;Leppla, SH;Barr, JR;

Inhalation of Bacillus anthracis spores can cause a rapidly progressing fatal infection. B. anthracis secretes three protein toxins: lethal factor (LF), edema factor (EF), and protective antigen (PA). EF and LF may circulate as free or PA-bound forms. Both free EF (EF) and PA-bound-EF (ETx) have adenylyl cyclase activity converting ATP to cAMP. We developed an adenylyl cyclase activity-based method for detecting and quantifying total EF (EF+ETx) in plasma. The three-step method includes magnetic immunocapture with monoclonal antibodies, reaction with ATP generating cAMP, and quantification of cAMP by isotope-dilution HPLC-MS/MS. Total EF was quantified from 5PL regression of cAMP vs ETx concentration. The detection limit was 20 fg/mL (225 zeptomoles/mL for the 89 kDa protein). Relative standard deviations for controls with 0.3, 6.0, and 90 pg/mL were 11.7-16.6% with 91.2-99.5% accuracy. The method demonstrated 100% specificity in 238 human serum/plasma samples collected from unexposed healthy individuals, and 100% sensitivity in samples from 3 human and 5 rhesus macaques with inhalation anthrax. Analysis of EF in the rhesus macaques showed that it was detected earlier post-exposure than B. anthracis by culture and PCR. Similar to LF, the kinetics of EF over the course of infection were triphasic, with an initial rise (phase-1), decline (phase-2), and final rapid rise (phase-3). EF levels were ~2-4 orders of magnitude lower than LF during phase-1 and phase-2 and only ~6-fold lower at death/euthanasia. Analysis of EF improves early diagnosis and adds to our understanding of anthrax toxemia throughout infection. The LF/EF ratio may also indicate the stage of infection and need for advanced treatments.