Anthrax Protective Antigen 63 (PA63): Toxic Effects in Neural Cultures and Role in Gulf War Illness (GWI)

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Protective antigen (PA) 63 (PA63) is a protein derived from the PA83 component contained in the anthrax vaccine. The anthrax vaccine (“Biothrax”) was administered together with other vaccines to Gulf War veterans, about 35% of whom later developed a multisymptom disease (Gulf War Illness [GWI]), with prominent neurological/cognitive/mood symptoms, among others. The disease has been traditionally attributed to exposures to toxic chemicals during the war but other factors could be involved, including vaccines received. Of these, the anthrax vaccine is the most toxic. Here, we assessed directly the PA63 toxin’s harmful effects on cultured neuroblastoma 2A (N2A) cells with respect to cell spreading, process formation, apoptosis, and integrity of cell membrane, cytoskeleton, and mitochondria. We found that, when added in N2A cultures, PA63 toxin led to decreased cell spreading and cell aggregation, leading to apoptosis. The mechanisms of PA63-induced cell damage included compromised cell membrane permeability indicated by enhanced access of propidium iodide in cells. In addition, signaling pathways leading to organization of N2A cytoskeleton were negatively affected, as both actin and microtubular networks were compromised. Finally, the mitochondrial membrane potential was impaired in specific assays. Altogether, these alterations led to apoptosis as a collective toxic effect of PA63 which was substantially reduced by the concomitant addition of specific antibodies against PA63.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalNeuroscience Insights
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge the support by the Minnesota American Legion Family Brain Sciences Foundation.

Funding Information:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Partial funding for this study was provided by the University of Minnesota American Legion Family Brain Sciences Chair. The sponsors had no role in the current study design, analysis or interpretation, or in the writing of this paper.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2020.

Copyright 2020 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Gulf War Illness
  • N2A cultures
  • anthrax PA63
  • apoptosis
  • cytoskeleton
  • membrane permeability
  • mitochondrial membrane potential

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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