Outbred mice were immunized with the soluble fraction of a crude Escherichia coli lysate containing either recombinant outer surface protein C (OspC or P39 of Borrelia burgdorferi B31 (low passage). Following seroconversion, the mice were challenged with an infectious dose of B. burgdorferi B31 via the natural transmission mode of tick bite. Three mice immunized with P39 were not protected; however, all 12 of the recombinant OspC-immunized mice were protected from infection as assayed by culture and serology. Although OspC has been shown to be a protective immunogen against challenge with in vitro-cultured borrelia administered by needle, this study is the first to demonstrate OspC effectiveness against tick-borne spirochetes. Following feeding, all ticks still harbored B. burgdorferi, suggesting that the mechanism of protection is not linked to destruction of the infectious spirochete within the tick. In a separate experiment, groups of four mice were immunized with protein fractions from B. burgdorferi B31 purified by preparative gel electrophoresis in an attempt to identify potential protective antigens. Many of these mice developed high-titer-antibody responses against OspC, but curiously the mice were susceptible to B. burgdorferi infection via tick bite. These results suggest that the protective epitope(s) on OspC is heat sensitive/conformational, a finding which has implications in vaccine development.
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