Botulinum neurotoxins (BoNTs) possess unique specificity for nerve terminals. They bind to the presynaptic membrane and then translocate intracellularly, where the light-chain endopeptidase cleaves the SNARE complex proteins, subverting the synaptic exocytosis responsible for acetylcholine release to the synaptic cleft. This inhibits acetylcholine binding to its receptor, causing paralysis. Binding, an obligate event for cell intoxication, is believed to occur through the heavy-chain C-terminal (HC) domain. It is followed by toxin translocation and entry into the cell cytoplasm, which is thought to be mediated by the heavy-chain N-terminal (HN) domain. Submolecular mapping analysis by using synthetic peptides spanning BoNT serotype A (BoNT/A) and mouse brain synaptosomes (SNPs) and protective antibodies against toxin from mice and cervical dystonia patients undergoing BoNT/A treatment revealed that not only regions of the HC domain but also regions of the HN domain are involved in the toxin binding process. Based on these findings, we expressed a peptide corresponding to the BoNT/A region comprising HN domain residues 729 to 845 (HN729-845). HN729-845 bound directly to mouse brain SNPs and substantially inhibited BoNT/A binding to SNPs. The binding involved gangliosides GT1b and GD1a and a few membrane lipids. The peptide bound to human or mouse neuroblastoma cells within 1 min. Peptide HN729-845 protected mice completely against a lethal BoNT/A dose (1.05 times the 100% lethal dose). This protective activity was obtained at a dose comparable to that of the peptide from positions 967 to 1296 in the HC domain. These findings strongly indicate that HN729-845 and, by extension, the HN domain are fully programmed and equipped to bind to neuronal cells and in the free state can even inhibit the binding of the toxin.
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