Background: Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of plague, is a pathogen with a tremendous ability to cause harm and panic in populations. Due to the severity of plague and its potential for use as a bioweapon, better preventatives and therapeutics for plague are desirable. Subunit vaccines directed against the F1 capsular antigen and the V antigen (also known as LcrV) of Y. pestis are under development. However, these new vaccine formulations have some possible limitations. The F1 antigen is not required for full virulence of Y. pestis and LcrV has a demonstrated immunosuppressive effect. These limitations could damper the ability of F1/LcrV based vaccines to protect against F1-minus Y. pestis strains and could lead to a high rate of undesired side effects in vaccinated populations. For these reasons, the use of other antigens in a plague vaccine formulation may be advantageous.
Results: Desired features in vaccine candidates would be antigens that are conserved, essential for virulence and accessible to circulating antibody. Several of the proteins required for the construction or function of the type III secretion system (TTSS) complex could be ideal contenders to meet the desired features of a vaccine candidate. Accordingly, the TTSS needle complex protein, YscF, was selected to investigate its potential as a protective antigen. In this study we describe the overexpression, purification and use of YscF as a protective antigen. YscF immunization triggers a robust antibody response to YscF and that antibody response is able to afford significant protection to immunized mice following challenge with Y. pestis. Additionally, evidence is presented that suggests antibody to YscF is likely not protective by blocking the activity of the TTSS.
Conclusion: In this study we investigated YscF, a surface-expressed protein of the Yersinia pestis type III secretion complex, as a protective antigen against experimental plague infection. Immunization of mice with YscF resulted in a high anti-YscF titer and provided protection against i.v. challenge with Y. pestis. This is the first report to our knowledge utilizing a conserved protein from the type III secretion complex of a gram-negative pathogen as a candidate for vaccine development.