Protective Effect of Two Recombinant Ricin Subunit Vaccines in the New Zealand White Rabbit Subjected to a Lethal Aerosolized Ricin Challenge: Survival, Immunological Response, and Histopathological Findings

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Ricin, isolated from the castor bean plant Ricinus communis, is included on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Category B list of bioterrorism agents, indicating that the toxin is moderately easy to disseminate and could result in moderate morbidity rates. This study evaluated two promising recombinant ricin subunit vaccines, one made using an Escherichia coli codon–optimized gene and the other using a yeast codon–optimized gene in E. coli-based fermentations. Rabbits were vaccinated four times over a period of 6 months and challenged with ∼10 to 30 times the median lethal dose of aerosolized ricin. All unvaccinated control rabbits were either found dead or humanely euthanized within 30 h postchallenge, while the rabbits vaccinated with either vaccine survived the exposure without adverse clinical signs. When the protective antibody responses were analyzed, no significant difference was seen between the two vaccines. However, there was a significant difference in the immune response over time for both vaccines tested. Although clinical pathology was unremarkable, significant histological lesions in the control animals included fibrinonecrotic pneumonia, acute necrotizing lesions in the upper respiratory tract, and necrotizing lymphadenitis in the lymph nodes draining the upper and lower respiratory tract. Vaccine-treated rabbits exhibited resolving lesions associated with ricin exposure, namely chronic inflammation in the upper respiratory tract and lungs, fibrosis, type II pneumocyte hyperplasia, and bronchiolitis obliterans. This study confirmed the safety and efficacy of two recombinant ricin subunit vaccines in rabbits, offering potential protection to warfighters and select populations.

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