Investigation of the detoxification mechanism of formaldehyde-treated tetanus toxin

Morten Thaysen-Andersen, Sys Borcher Jørgensen, Ellen Sloth Wilhelmsen, Jesper Westphal Petersen, Peter Højrup*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Citations (Scopus)


The tetanus vaccine is based on the extremely potent tetanus neurotoxin (TeNT), which is converted by treatment with formaldehyde and lysine into the non-toxic, but still immunogenic tetanus toxoid (TTd). This formaldehyde-induced detoxification, which to a large extend determines the quality and properties of the vaccine component, occurs through partly unknown chemical modifications of the toxin. The aim of this study was to gain knowledge of the detoxification mechanism in the generation of the tetanus vaccine. Two approaches were chosen: (i) the effect of changes in the concentrations of lysine and formaldehyde in the detoxification process and (ii) characterisation of the chemically detoxified TTd. (i) We examined a number of TTd components that was produced by varying the concentrations of formaldehyde and lysine during the inactivation. Toxicity tests showed that the detoxification failed when the lysine or formaldehyde concentration was ≤1/5 or ≤1/10, respectively, of the standard level. Gel-electrophoretic analyses showed that inter-chain cross-linking was formaldehyde-dependent and, furthermore, revealed that inter-chain cross-linking was not the only requirement for the inactivation. In addition, the measurable amount of tyrosine correlated inversely with the degree of inter-chain cross-linking. (ii) To study the formaldehyde-induced chemical modifications, the TTd was investigated using protein chemical techniques in combination with mass spectrometry (MS). Using off-line liquid chromatography (LC)-MS, the most pronounced chemical modifications were characterised as unstable Schiff-bases (+12 Da) located on lysine residues and the N-termini of peptides throughout the molecule. Several arginine residues were also found with +12 Da modifications due to Schiff-base formation or as a consequence of degenerative fragmentation of lysine/formaldehyde adducts or cross-links during MS. A few tyrosine residues were similarly observed with a mass increase of 12 Da. Even though it cannot be ruled out that this is a residual mass of higher molecule adducts or cross-links to tyrosine, amino acid analysis and MS data indicated that the modification forms a ring structure from a carbon in the aromatic ring to the backbone Nα. In addition, several mono-ε-methyllysines (+14 Da) were observed as a likely consequence of reductive methylation of the Schiff-bases. A substantial part (87%) of the known TeNT sequence, including the active site, was covered using the off-line LC-MS approach to investigate the tryptic digested TTd. In contrast to the results obtained from the gel-electrophoretic experiments, neither intra/inter-chain cross-links nor cross-links to external lysines were observed in the MS analysis. Instability of the cross-links during separation and/or MS is likely to explain their absence in the analyses. The biological relevance of the observed modifications is discussed in relation to 3D mapping analyses. Proposals for the TeNT detoxification are discussed, although no direct evidence for the exact mechanism could be obtained.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2213-2227
Number of pages15
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 8 Mar 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Formaldehyde
  • Mass spectrometry
  • Tetanus toxoid


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