Staphylococcal epidermolysins are the major causative toxins of bullous impetigo and staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome. This disease is characterized by the splitting of the epidermis between two cell layers resulting in exfoliation. It predominantly affects newborn babies and exposes them to secondary infections. This leads to the risk of epidemics, especially in nurseries. With only an experimental model which consists of skin injections in newborn mice and the recent determination of three-dimensional structures, the essential function of these toxins remained controversial, split between that of specific proteases and that of superantigens.
Staphylococcal epidermolysins now constitute a family of toxins, with the recent characterizations of two new serotypes: ETC and ETD. They may be secreted by sensitive or methicillin-resistant strains. Four molecules were also identified in Staphylococcus hyicus responsible for exudative epidermitis in swine. While different observations suggested a proteolytic action to these toxins, the histological parallel made with pemphigus foliaceus greatly helped in the characterization of the targets for epidermolysins ETA, ETB, ETD: desmoglein-1, a desmosome-constitutive protein, and incidentally melanocyte-stimulating hormones, which accounts for the blisters observed clinically.
The growing complexity in staphylococcal toxins has to be taken into account both for their association with diseases and for diagnosis purposes. Even though cases of staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome in adults are rare, they raise further questions about the pathogenic features of the disease such as individual sensitivity and distribution of the toxins into the body.
aLaboratory for Pathophysiology of Emergent and Nosocomial Bacteria, Bacteriology Institute of the Faculty of Medicine, Strasbourg, France and bCayenne Hospital, Cayenne, French Guiana
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