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Charles Darkoh

Advisor: Heidi Kaplan, Ph.D.

Accepted Assistant Professor position at the University of Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health after receiving PhD

Clostridium difficile is the leading definable cause of nosocomial diarrhea worldwide due to its virulence, multi-drug resistance, spore-forming ability, and environmental persistence. Virulent strains of C. difficile produce either toxin A and/or toxin B, which are essential for the pathogenesis of this bacterium. Current methods for diagnosing C. difficile infection (CDI) are mostly qualitative tests that detect the bacterium, the toxins, or the toxin genes. These methods do not differentiate virulent C. difficile strains that produce active toxins from non-virulent strains that do not produce toxins or produce inactive toxins. Based on the knowledge that C. difficile toxins A and B cleave a substrate that is stereochemically similar to the native substrate of the toxins, uridine diphosphoglucose, a quantitative, cost-efficient assay, the Cdifftox activity assay, was developed to measure C. difficile toxin activity. The concept behind the activity assay was modified to develop a novel, rapid, sensitive, and specific assay for C. difficile toxins in the form of a selective and differential agar plate culture medium, the Cdifftox Plate assay (CDPA). This assay combines in a single step the specific identification of C. difficile strains and the detection of active toxin(s). The CDPA was determined to be extremely accurate (99.8% effective) at detecting toxin-producing strains based on the analysis of 528 C. difficile isolates selected from 50 tissue culture cytotoxicity assay-positive clinical stool samples. This new assay advances and improves the culture methodology in that virulent strains producing active toxins can be differentiated from non-virulent strains. This new method reduces the time and effort required to isolate and confirm toxin-producing C. difficile strains and provides a clinical isolate for antibiotic susceptibility testing and strain typing. The Cdifftox activity assay was used to screen for inhibitors of toxin activity. Physiological levels of the common human conjugated bile salt, taurocholate, was found to inhibit toxins A and B in vitro activities. When co-incubated ex vivo with purified toxin B, taurocholate protected Caco-2 colonic epithelial cells from the damaging effects of the toxin. Furthermore, using a caspase-3 detection assay, taurocholate reduced the extent of toxin B-induced Caco-2 cell apoptosis. These results suggest that bile salts can be effective in protecting the gut epithelium from C. difficile toxin damage, thus, the delivery of physiologic amounts of taurocholate to the colon, where it is normally in low concentration, could be useful in CDI treatment. These findings may help to explain why bile rich small intestine is spared damage in CDI, while the bile salt poor colon is vulnerable in CDI.

Toxin synthesis in C. difficile occurs during the stationary phase, but little is known about the regulation of these toxins. It was hypothesized that C. difficile toxin synthesis is regulated by a quorum sensing mechanism. Two lines of evidence supported this hypothesis. First, a small (<1 KDa), diffusible, heat-stable toxin-inducing activity accumulates in the medium of high-density C. difficile cells. This conditioned medium when incubated with low-density log-phase cells causes them to produce toxin early (2-4 hrs instead of 12-16 hrs) and at elevated levels when compared with cells grown in fresh medium. These data suggested that C. difficile cells extracellularly release an inducing molecule during growth that is able to activate toxin synthesis prematurely and demonstrates for the first time that toxin synthesis in C. difficile is regulated by quorum signaling. Second, this toxin-inducing activity was partially purified from high-density stationary-phase culture supernatant fluid by HPLC and confirmed to induce early toxin synthesis, even in C. difficile virulent strains that over-produce the toxins. Mass spectrometry analysis of the purified toxin-inducing fraction from HPLC revealed a cyclic compound with a mass of 655.8 Da. It is anticipated that identification of this toxin-inducing compound will advance our understanding of the mechanism involved in the quorum-dependent regulation of C. difficile toxin synthesis. This finding should lead to the development of even more sensitive tests to diagnose CDI and may lead to the discovery of promising novel therapeutic targets that could be harnessed for the treatment C. difficile infections.

Research Info

Regulation of toxin synthesis by Clostridium difficile